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Date Title (Scripture Reference)
April 1, 2018 The Shroud of the Nations
(Isaiah 25:6-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have something for you. I have some heart stickers for you. Know when you see a heart, what does it mean to you? It means love. So if someone gave you a heart sticker, maybe that would mean that they loved you, right? And you could take that sticker and put in on your shirt. Then every time you saw it you would remember that someone who loves you.

Two weeks ago Isaak was baptized. Here at Hessel Park we baptize by putting water from here onto someone’s head.  Now baptism is sort of like a heart sticker. Baptism is a sign, a symbol, that God loves us. But it reminds us that God loves us in very special ways. Baptism reminds us that God adopts us as his children. Baptism reminds us that God washes away our sins. He forgives us. And baptism reminds us that God gives us the Holy Spirit so that we can love him, trust in him and obey him better. In all these ways baptism reminds us that God loves us.  

So I am going to give you each a page of heart stickers. You can then give a sticker to anyone you want so they can look at the sticker and remember that you love them. And so when you come to church, remember to look at the baptismal font and remember that God loves each and every one of us. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

The Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah, “Forget the former things; Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). Each Sunday during Lent I have begun our service reciting this verse from Isaiah and pouring water into the baptismal font. I have done this to remind us each week of our baptism. I have done this to remind us that our way out of exile and the wilderness is found in Christ. For in baptism we are united with Jesus Christ and so adopted as God’s children, forgiven of our sin, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. In Christ we die with him so we too will be raised with him. God’s love for us in Christ brings us out of exile.

Let’s take a moment and name some of the ways we find ourselves in exile and in the wilderness. When you turn on the news, or open the paper, or look at your facebook feed, what are some of the ways you see people in the world experiencing exile and the wilderness? Refugees, police shootings, mass shootings in schools, the opioid crisis, immigration issues, DACA, talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The list goes on and on. We live in a broken, sinful world. A world crying out for God. Remember all these things and they will become our prayer of God’s people later in the service.

But let’s also think of some of the ways we as individuals experience the wilderness and exile? How are we broken? Where do we see the need for God in our lives? Sickness and disease, mental illness, anxiety, depression, need for employment, struggles with personal sin, broken relationships. We all as individuals also are crying out for God.

Over the season of Lent we have seen how God has brought his people out of exile and through the wilderness to himself. We have seen this through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the People of Israel at Mount Sinai, and the People of Israel in wandering in the wilderness. We have seen how God has acted in the history of the people of Israel to redeem them. Last week we saw how the story of Israel comes to its fulfillment in the story of Jesus. Jesus acts as the faithful Israelite and fulfills the covenant on behalf of Israel.

In all of this we have found comfort and hope because we have seen the same God acting to bring his people back into relationship with him. Ultimately we see God bringing us to him by coming to us himself in Jesus. In Jesus God came to live with us, teach us, walk with us, heal us, and ultimately to die for us in order to forgive our sins and raise us with Christ into new life. In his book, Power, Service, Humility, New Testament scholar Reinhard Feldmeir argues that “[T]he superior power [of the pagan gods] is regarded as the decisive difference between the divine and the human.”[1] On the other hand, while the God of Israel is known for his great and awesome power, what makes the God of Israel distinct is that he uses his power for the sake of others, and particularly for the benefit of the weak and oppressed. The God of Israel is He who brings low the lofty and raises up the humble. In the biblical story, he uses his power first to create the conditions for life and then to oppose those forces that bring injustice and death and to save those oppressed by the forces of evil and death. God’s power is not a power for the sake of power, but a power that creates and saves.

Feldmeir finds this same dynamic at work in the New Testament in the ministry of Jesus.[2] In Greek the normal word for “miracle” is thaumata.  A miracle in this sense is an act that breaks the laws of nature and causes “admiration of the wonder worker.” Jesus repeatedly shies away from the crowds when they begin to admire him too much for being a wonder worker. Thus, his acts of healing and other demonstrations of power are not called thaumata, works of wonder, but dunameis, acts of power. Jesus’ powerful acts point to the power of God and they demonstrate that in Jesus the reign of God, the Kingdom of God has come. His acts of healing and over nature are acts that bring life to those oppressed by disease and social stigma, and faith to those who doubt. They are acts that bring people out of exile and into the fullness of life. They are Kingdom acts of new creation.

This morning we celebrate the ultimate of these acts of power, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Last week we saw that Jesus acted for Israel, God’s people, in order to act on behalf of all humanity. The prophet Isaiah looks forward to Jesus’ resurrection when he says, “On this mountain [the Lord Almighty] will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:7-8). God overcame death and sin in the person of Jesus so that the resurrection of the One could be a down payment, a guarantee that God will one day overcome the death and sin of all. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God’s power to save and to recreate.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, husband and wife, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, examine the different understandings of Jesus’ resurrection held by the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.[3] If you look at the handout in your bulletins you will see two depictions of the Resurrection. The one on the left represents a typical Western portrayal of the resurrection.[4] Jesus is shown rising from the grave by himself while the guards lay sleeping around the grave.

The picture on the right represents a typical Eastern Orthodox depiction of the resurrection.[5] Here we see Jesus rising up out of the land of the dead, standing over the defeated figure of death. The cross demonstrates the means of Jesus’ victory. You can also see broken chains and the keys of the gates of hades as well. But the Crossans point out that in this depiction Jesus is not alone. He pulls Adam and Eve, the two on the left, out of their graves. On the right you see that Israel is present too in the figures of David and Solomon.

The Crossans argue that the West celebrates an individual resurrection, while the East celebrates a universal resurrection. They argue that the Eastern tradition is more biblical because there is no actual depiction of the event of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. It happens off stage, so to speak. They argue that the rest of the New Testament teaches a universal resurrection. The point of the resurrection is not the actual fact of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s rather immaterial. Rather, they argue the resurrection of Jesus is a “reality creating metaphor” that has significance for all of humanity. Jesus’ resurrection signifies the metaphorical resurrection of Israel, Adam and Eve, and all their descendants. The resurrection is a symbol, a story, which vindicates the kind of life Jesus lived, a life of love and sacrifice that eschewed violence. The resurrection is thus a “reality creating metaphor” because it leads all of humanity out of our hatred and violence and into more ethical modes of human interaction.

While I don’t agree with the Crossans’ conclusions, I do believe they bring up important differences between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity. But these differences call us to embrace the truths found in each tradition. Rather than seeing these as competing traditions, we should see them as traditions that correct and enhance one another.

I agree with the Crossans that Western Christianity has become too individualized. We typically think about resurrection, or our baptism, or any aspect of Christianity in terms of my own personal relationship with God and Jesus. But then we struggle to figure out how this then applies to our life in the world, our work, our relationship with others, to politics, economics, and to society in general.

But if we remember that Jesus acted for Israel on behalf of all humanity, then we see the truth depicted in the Eastern iconography. Christ came to redeem all humanity. His death and resurrection were sufficient to remove the shroud of death that covers all the nations. Christ’s resurrection does vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus. It demonstrates that the life of love and service Christ lived, that his refusal to resort to violence, that his trust in God are the true ways of life. Humans cannot overcome sin and death and violence and hatred by resorting to violence and hatred. They can only be overcome through love and faith in the God of love and the God of life. The God who makes a way in the desert and provides streams in the wilderness. What the Eastern Iconography reminds us is that God resurrected Jesus for the sake of all humanity, but not only for humanity, but also for the world itself. We hope not only for our resurrection as humans, but also for the renewal, the resurrection of the earth.

By starting with the universal we can then move, as God does, to the communal. God calls to himself a people, not mere individuals, to live out of the love and faith of Jesus and into the new life he has promised. The church is that community that has been joined to Christ through faith and baptism to live and speak in such a way to point to Christ and his ways. It is a community that demonstrates a faith that God is the God of creation who acts in the world to overcome evil, sin and death to save humanity. It is a community that knows and believes that Christ came to defeat sin and death and evil for all humanity. It is a community that then announces the good news that Jesus is risen, and thus that Jesus is Lord. We then invite others to join us in this way of faith and life.

We therefore move from the universal, to the communal, to the individual. Attempting to figure out how to apply our faith to the world moves in the wrong direction for it begins with the individual. Rather, we must start with God’s kingdom and figure out how to conform our lives to the world God is making. Our calling is to seek to conform our lives to Christ so that we can be witnesses of the Kingdom, proclaiming in our words and deed the good news that is for all humanity.

The thing is that the good news we proclaim is good news precisely because it actually happened. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates the life and ministry of Jesus only if he actually rose from the dead. The Crossans argue that the Western depiction of the resurrection is not biblical because the Bible doesn’t record anyone actually witnessing the resurrection. The Crossans ignore numerous statements by Peter and Paul that attest to the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. “We are witnesses,” Peter proclaims in Acts 10:39. Moreover, there are several biblical scenes in which Jesus’ followers encounter a real, bodily, physical Jesus who eats and drinks with them. But this real, physical Jesus is not bound to our physicality. He appears and disappears at will. Walls and doors and tombs present no obstacle to him. In other words, Jesus rose from the dead in the darkness of the tomb, but then probably left the tomb. The stone was moved away from the tomb not to let Jesus out, but to let the women and the disciples in. No one, not even the guards, witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.

The Eastern depiction of the resurrection is a metaphorical depiction because it depicts not the event of the resurrection, but the universal meaning of the resurrection. But the Western depiction of the resurrection is also metaphorical. Jesus rises up out of a coffin. He is not walking out of the tomb. It too points to the meaning of the resurrection: Jesus himself, physically, bodily rose from the dead. It demonstrates that God is the God who acts in history, who creates out of nothing, and who brings life out of death.

Friends, we believe in the God of creation who has acted and continues to act within history. We can place our hope for the future in God because God has acted in the past and he continues to act in the present. We can hope for a time when God will “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; [when] he will swallow up death forever” because death and sin have already been defeated by the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection is our guarantee, it is God’s promise to humanity, that he is making a way in the desert towards the new heavens and the new earth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


God of glory, fill your church with the power

that flows from Christ’s resurrection,

that, in the midst of this broken and sinful world,

it may signal the beginning of a renewed humanity,

risen to new life with Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 11.

[2] Feldmeier, 22.

[3] John Dominc Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “Rising up with Christ,” The Christian Century, accessed March 31, 2018,

[4] The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Piero della Francesca, 1493, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.

[5] Anastasis, from the Karanlık Kilise (the Dark Church) Cappadocia, Turkey.

March 25, 2018 The King of the Jews
(Mark 11:1-11; 15:1-15, Philippians 2:5-11 ) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I don’t know if you can see it but I have a little pin on my lapel here. Can anyone see what it is? It is a little golden cross. The letters WSFD are etched into this cross and they stand for the West Saville Fire Department. When my dad was a young boy he lived in a town called West Saville, New York. This cross was his dad’s, my grandfather. My grandpa had this cross because he was the pastor of the church in West Saville and also the chaplain for the West Saville Fire Department. When my grandfather died, my grandmother gave me this pin because I was going to become a pastor just like my grandfather. She told me that every week she had to take the pin out of the suit my grandfather wore the Sunday before and put it on the suit he was going to wear the coming Sunday. So whenever I wear this pin, I think of my grandfather.

I wonder if you have something special that helps you remember someone you love. Maybe you have a favorite toy that your aunt or uncle gave to you. Maybe you have a shirt or a dress that your grandparents gave to you. Maybe you have a doll or a game that your cousin gave to you. Do you have anything like that? So whenever you play with your special toy, or wear your special shirt or dress, you remember whoever gave it to you.

This morning you all marched around waving palm branches. We do that because it helps us remember when Jesus came into Jerusalem. His disciples and all the people along the road grabbed palm branches and sang songs as they walked with Jesus into Jerusalem.

So we wave the palm branches because it helps us remember Jesus, but why do you suppose the people walking into Jerusalem that day waved the palm branches? Well, King Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). The temple was the place that God was present with his people Israel. So the Jewish people saw palm branches as a symbol of God’s presence with them. When they saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem, they hoped that he would be their king, and that mean that God would be with them again. So we too can wave the palm branches not only to remember that day Jesus came into Jerusalem, but also to remember that in Jesus God was and is with us in a very special way. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

On Thursday students from Parkland, Florida, attended an assembly at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southwest Washington, D.C., an urban charter prep school whose students are almost all African American, and from very low income families. They came to invite the Marshall students to join them in their March for Our Lives which was held yesterday in downtown D.C., and drew an estimated 800,000 people. The purpose of the March was to demand that Congress take legislative action that addresses school safety and gun violence.

There are many things that have impressed me and others about these Parkland students.  One thing stood out in this meeting and in some interviews I heard leading up to this event. David Hogg, one of the Parkland students, addressed the assembly and said, “We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings and oftentimes be biased toward white-privileged students. Many of these communities [meaning communities such as Southwest D.C.] are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same media attention that we do.”[1] The Parkland students are very aware that the high profile, mass school shootings almost always take place in relatively wealthy, white suburbs, but that students who live in many urban areas deal with gun violence on the streets on a more constant basis. At one point one of the Parkland students asked who among the Marshall students had known a friend or relative who had died from gun violence. Dozens of hands shot into the air.

What impressed me was that the Parkland students are not just seeking to get their message heard. They are reaching out to other teens, in other settings, from other contexts. They are using the media attention focused on Parkland to bring to light the violence and fear that many urban teens live with their whole lives. While they marched yesterday for “Our Lives,” they seek to make the “our” bigger than themselves.

The “March for Our Lives” was a deliberate political action. It was a protest march. We probably think of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as just some sort of religious event. Jesus and many Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate a religious feast, the Feast of Passover. In the context of the Roman occupation of Israel, however, the Feast of Passover always had explosively political overtones. During Passover the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from the land of Egypt and slavery. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Passover piqued their hopes for a Messiah, a savior, someone who would lead Israel in rebellion against the Romans. They longed for the return of the King.

And so Jesus deliberately sets the scene. He tells his disciples to go where they will find a colt for him to ride upon. They find it and bring it back. Jesus mounts it and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. The disciples and the pilgrims walking along the road pick up on the imagery taken from Zechariah 9:9, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” And so the disciples and the people gather palm branches, wave them in the air and lay them on the ground in front of Jesus as they sing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And to make their hopes clear they sing, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:9-10). The crowds get that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews.

Now when we look at something that Jesus does, we should always consider it from two perspectives: from a human perspective and from a divine perspective. For we believe that Jesus was God made flesh, both human and divine. So we have to ask what is Jesus doing in this story as a human, and what is Jesus doing in this story as God.

The first thing that Jesus does as a human is to stage a non-violent, or rather an anti-violence, protest. Like the students marching on Washington, Jesus is rejecting the weapons of war. He rides into Jerusalem as a King not on a warhorse, but on a colt, and not the colt of a horse, but the colt of a donkey. He rides into Jerusalem, in other words, not as a conquering warrior, but as a servant. Jesus, the King, the Messiah, will overcome the violent oppression of Rome not with a sword, but with humble service. Zechariah 9:10 reads, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He [that is the coming King] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Zechariah prophesied that God would bring peace and justice through the coming King of the Jews, but not by breaking the weapons of Babylon, or of Rome, not by breaking the weapons of the oppressors, but by breaking the weapons of the oppressed. God brings peace by breaking the weapons we rely upon rather than relying upon God.

And so as the King of the Jews Jesus ends up standing before Pilate. He refuses to answer to the insults, the accusations, and the beatings he receives. He admits that he is the King of the Jews and so receives the sentence pronounced over him by the crowds, “Crucify him.” The same crowds, mind you, who hailed him as the son of David just a week before. The irony is that the crowds probably turn on Jesus because he fails to take up arms against the Romans. He used a non-violent, anti-violence image to indicate to them that he was in deed the Messiah, but when he fails to lead a rebellion, they view him as a failed Messiah and clamor for him to be crucified.

Over the past several weeks we have been thinking about how God brings us out of our exile and the wilderness and back into communion with him. Several times in the past few weeks we have seen how God has done this by working with covenants. He made a covenant with Abraham, promising to be his God and calling Abraham to worship him simply because he is God. He made a covenant with Israel, promising to be their God and calling them to live in obedience to him as an example to the nations of what life in communion with God could be like. Last week we heard that God promised to make a new covenant with his people. We saw that through the Holy Spirit God would “put the law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Ezekiel 31:33).

The second thing Jesus does as a human is to fulfill another aspect of the new covenant.  As the King of the Jews Jesus represents God’s people. He thus fulfills the covenant on behalf of God’s people. Jesus does for Israel what Israel kept failing to do. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the Bible is one long story of God speaking to humans and humans responding to God. “Here, in the story of Jesus,” he writes, “is the story in which we see what an unequivocal obedience and love look like. Here is the story where we see a response to God so full of integrity, so whole, that it reflects the act of God that draws it out.”[2]  “See,” the prophet says, “your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation.” God now puts his law in our minds and writes it in our hearts because in Jesus Israel has finally obeyed him fully and completely. In Christ we stand before God as those who are righteous and so God, through the Holy Spirit, begins to transform our hearts so that we willingly follow him.

So as a human, as the King of the Jews, Jesus first breaks the violence of human beings and our reliance upon our own strength. In other words he breaks our rebellion against God. Second, he leads us back into full obedience to God so that we may obey God fully. And third, as a human being, Jesus trusts God fully. As the King of the Jews, Jesus places his whole life into the hands of God, and though innocent, submits to the punishment of the cross. In this way Jesus brings salvation for he becomes our sacrificial lamb. On the night of the Passover Mark tells us that

Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24).

Jesus is the innocent one who is sacrificed for the sins of the guilty. And his sacrifice is accepted because he is full of faith and fully faithful. He trusts and obeys God fully. And so when Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple in front of the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelled with his people, is torn in two. The barrier that separated humanity from God is ripped apart. Jesus’ sacrifice brings Israel out of exile and back into communion with God.

Jesus does all that as a human, as the King of the Jews, but we must also remember that Jesus acts not only as a human, but as God. As I mentioned in my children’s sermon, the palm branches the people waved as Jesus road into Jerusalem reminded them of God’s presence with them in the temple. The people of Israel looked to the return of their King not only as the time when Israel would be freed from her oppressors, but also as the time when God himself would return to them. In Zechariah’s prophecy, after the return of the king riding on a colt in 9:9, verse 14 reads, “Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning, the Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south.” Jesus not only brings Israel to God, but God to Israel for he himself is God.

The Apostle Paul puts God’s movement towards humans in Jesus like this:

[Jesus], being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

And so Jesus came not only to bring Israel to God and God to Israel, but humanity to God and God to humanity. If Israel claimed God to be “our God,” God comes to Israel in Jesus to expand the “our” to include people from every tribe and tongue. What Jesus did for Israel, he did for all humanity. And God comes to Israel through Jesus in order to come to all humanity. And so Paul concludes:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Of course Paul quotes this beautiful hymn to Christ because he desires the church in Philippi and us to live in a certain way. “Your attitude,” he writes, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5). In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


We praise you, O God,

for your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.

Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph

and was proclaimed Messiah and king

by those who spread garments and branches along his way.

Let these branches be signs of his victory,

That he has ended humanities exile from God

and brought God into communion with us.

Grant that we who carry them

may follow him in the way of the cross,

that, dying and rising with him, we may bear witness to his coming kingdom;

through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Marissa J. Lang, “Parkland, D.C. Students Make Plea for Tougher Gun Laws ahead of March for Our Lives,” Washington Post, March 22, 2018, sec. Local,

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, First Edition edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014), 35.

March 18, 2018 The New Covenant
(John 12:20-30; Jeremiah 31:31-34) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a young owl who lived in her mother’s nest. One day the mother owl scooted the chick to the edge of the nest and said, “You are now old enough to fly. Spread your wings and trust the wind.” With that she scooted the chick out of the nest. The chick started flapping her wings and she fluttered to the ground, but she did not fly. The next day the mother owl said, “Spread you wings and trust the wind,” and scooted her chick out of the nest. The chick started flapping her wings and she fluttered to the ground, but she did not fly. And so again the next day the mother owl said, “Spread your wings and trust the wind.” And this time, when the mother owl scooted her out of the nest the chick spread her wings and she glided through the air. [Throw paper airplane] The chick flew up and down, left and right as she learned to trust in the wind.

Sometimes when we think about God, we think that our relationship to God is mainly about all the things God wants us to do. We think about all the ways we have to obey God. But then we can be like that owl chick when she is pushed out of the nest who flapped and flapped and flapped her wings, but couldn’t fly. We try to obey God on our own strength and we try to please God with our own efforts. But God made owls with wings that catch the wind and he made us with spirits that catch the Holy Spirit. We were made to trust in God and so the only real way to obey God and to please God is to first trust in God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter gets into trouble with the new professor, Professor Umbridge. [1] When Harry arrives in her office to serve his detention, she orders him to write out “I must not tell lies.”  “How many times,” he asks. “As long as it takes for the message to sink in,” she replies.  He begins to take out his quill, but she stops him and gives him her own, special quill. As Harry begins to write he feels a prick on his hand. The stinging continues until he notices that as he writes, the letters are cut into his hand and then quickly disappear. Professor Umbridge’s quill is a magical quill that she has turned into a sadistic form of corporal punishment. After a second evening of detention, “I must not tell lies” blazes across the back of Harry’s hand as though he had been branded with a hot iron.

Of course the lesson doesn’t really sink in to Harry. This is in part due to Harry’s determination not to let Professor Umbridge get the better of him, but more so to the fact that what Harry had said was in fact the truth. He had not been lying. If the incident had happened today, Umbridge would have accused Harry of publishing fake news. In spite of his punishment Harry continues to hold to what he said is the truth. No matter how much Umbridge scars Harry with her magic quill, she can’t turn Harry into something he is not.

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at how God leads us out of exile and the wilderness and back home to him and to wholeness.  God first calls us to trust in him as God. That is to trust him with our whole lives and then to follow him in all aspects of our lives.  Last week Mike Moore spoke of how the we have to be born again by the Holy Spirit. This morning I would like to look a bit more at our own efforts to make ourselves right with God and what it means to trust in the Holy Spirit.  

When God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, this was part of the covenant he was making with them. At Mount Sinai God said to them, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). God saved Israel form Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments so that they could fulfill the mission he set out for them, to be a holy nation of priests, to demonstrate to the world what life in communion with God was like.

The problem was that Israel could never live up to her end of the covenant. Almost from the beginning she began to break it. In a sense, God’s first covenant with Israel was sort of the reverse of how Umbridge tried to corrupt Harry Potter with her magic quill. And if we have ever tried to become better people, if we have ever tried to obey God’s laws, if we have ever tried to not sin, we too have probably experienced the same thing. And that is this. We try to change who we are by applying some form of outward pressure on ourselves or by changing our outward behavior.

Some of you may have heard this story before, but when I was in High School my older brother Dan excelled in art. Our school gave such students an incredible amount of freedom to develop their passion. Dan, along with a select group of a dozen other students, took independent studies in art. Mr. Valemakie, the art teacher, turned one of the art rooms into studio space so each of these students had their own space to work on their art projects whenever they had free time. And, of course, being art students, they always had the latest music playing on the boom box. Bands that you couldn’t hear on the radio but had to buy at the record shops down in campus town.

Well, I thought that was pretty cool. After receiving an A in my freshman art class, I asked Mr. Valemakie if I too could take an independent study in art. He agreed, but since I hadn’t yet proved myself, I didn’t get my own studio space, but was allowed to work in the art studio on one of the counters. The problem was that I did not love art. Dan loved art. He was an artist. He and the others worked on their own projects whenever they got the chance. I just thought it was cool, but I had little passion for it. I was not an artist at heart. And so at the end of the semester, after turning in a couple of photographs, one painting,  and a model for a sculpture, Mr. Valemakie gave me a grade that told me he knew the meaning of grace, but it came with the understanding that I would look for my true passion elsewhere.

In his book, Desiring God’s Will, David Benner talks about the difference between willfulness and willingness.[2] Willfulness is when we set ourselves out to accomplish something through our own grit and determination. We admire willfulness as a culture here in North America. Willfulness lies at the heart of the American story. A couple immigrates to the United States from Ghana. Although a doctor and a lawyer back home, they can only find jobs as a janitor and a legal aid here in the states. But, working long hours and sometimes two jobs a piece, they provide a decent life for their children. The children go to college and they become a doctor and a lawyer, fulfilling the dreams of their parents. This hard work and determination, this set your mind to something and overcoming all the obstacles, that is what we admire here in the United States. Or, at least that is the myth we tell ourselves.

Now there is much to admire in willfulness, and it is necessary in life to have some level of grit and determination. But reliance solely on willfulness ends up being harmful and destructive particularly to our spiritual life. When we set ourselves up to follow God’s laws and please him by our own determination, we set ourselves up for failure. Professor Umbridge couldn’t make Harry into a liar by trying to force him to deny the truth because Harry was, at heart, truthful. Our problem, however, is the opposite. We can’t make ourselves be righteous and obedient to God’s will because we are, at heart, sinners. We can’t force ourselves to be obedient and kind and loving, but we can put on a pretty good show.

And that is particularly where the danger lies. If we think following God is all about doing the right things and being the right kind of person, we can fake it. On the outside we can dress ourselves up as loving, kind, and generous people who are devoted to God. But on the inside we merely feed the person we are trying to cover up. On the inside we begin to take pride in ourselves for being better than others. On the inside we begin to judge others for their failings. But of course we use our pride and our judgementalism in order to hide our own failings from others, from ourselves, and ultimately from God.

The Apostle Paul would call this person, or this persona, that we build up the “old self.” Many who write about spiritual transformation today call this the false self. This is the old, false self because we were not made to be independent, autonomous beings. We were not made to be self-determined. We were not made to make ourselves through our willfulness. While the truth about ourselves is that we are sinners, there is a deeper truth. The deeper truth about ourselves is that we were made in the image of God to be in communion with and dependent upon God and others. And those who have faith in Christ have another, deeper truth - we are being remade into our new selves. Those with a willingness to submit to God in Christ are being reborn into their true selves.

According to Benner the difference between willfulness and willingness is a matter of direction. “Looked at carefully,” he writes, “willfulness is more against something than for something.”[3] I tried to exert myself in art class over and against my true passions and loves, and failed miserably. In our self-determined efforts to follow God’s will, we strive against our own sinful nature. We strive against what people might think of us if they knew the truth. We strive against others so that we look better than them. But, if we are honest, in all this striving against we fail miserably.

In Jeremiah, God states how his first covenant with Israel was not working. He says that he will make a new covenant that will be different from the old because, “they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them.”  In contrast, in the new covenant God promises, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Benner writes, “Genuine Christian spirituality places the priority on inner transformation, not outward routines.”[4] Worship, scripture reading, prayer and the other spiritual disciplines are a means to an end. They are assistants to a changed heart and a changed relationship with God. They are means of grace by which we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit. They are the tools of willingness.

As opposed to willfulness, willingness is an “act of willing surrender,” as Benner writes. Willingness is “a choice of openness, a choice of abandonment of self-determination, a choice of cooperation with God.”[5] In his letter to the Philippians Paul urges the church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13). As we give up on our own powers, our own grit and determination, as we surrender ourselves to God, as we die to our old, false selves, God begins to write his law, his will, on our hearts, thus raising up, bringing to life our new, true selves.

Last week we were reminded that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” For, “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16) This week Jesus says much the same again, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32) 

On the cross Jesus took up our old humanity, that striving, self-determined, do it my way, humanity and died to it and to the sin that controlled it. He died to humanity’s willfulness so he could lead humanity into willingness. “Not what I will, but what you will,” he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). He did this because it is as he said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The one who loves their life will lose it, while the one who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).  That is the one who dies to the old, false self and allows God to raise the new self will live in communion with God.

In my children’s sermon I spoke of how God made owl’s wings to catch the wind. There is simple way that we can see how this works. So if you take a small strip of paper, put it up to your lips and blow underneath it, what is going to happen? The air will push the paper up, correct? Now, what if I put the paper beneath my lips and blow over top? What will happen? Nothing? [Blows and the paper rises up]  You see the air moving faster over the top of the paper creates lower air pressure above the paper, which draws the paper up, while the higher air pressure below pushes the paper up. God made bird wings so that the air flowing around them would flow faster over the top than the bottom creating this automatic lift.   

Friends, God made us in his image, in the image of a triune God, in the image of a God that is always and fundamentally interdependent and in community. We were made to be in community and dependent upon God and interdependent upon others. But we sinned through our willfulness. We sinned by our attempt to be self-determined and autonomous. The truth of our selves is that this led us into exile away from God and into the wilderness. The truth of our selves is that we continue to struggle with our willfulness. The truth of our selves is that we are sinners. The deeper truth, however, is that in Christ, through our willingness, through our surrender to God and our trust in God, we are forgiven sinners and the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is catching our wings of to raise us into our new and truer selves. Friends in Christ, spread your wings and trust in the Breath of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God,

your Son came into the world

to free us all from sin and death.

Breathe upon us with the power of your Spirit,

that we may be raised to new life in Christ,

and serve you in holiness and righteousness all our days;

through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

[1] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2004), 266.

[2] David G. Benner, Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God, Expanded edition (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2015), 17 ff.

[3] Benner, 23.

[4] Benner, 29.

[5] Benner, 23.

March 4, 2018 No other gods
(Exodus 20:1-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a lion who was queen of the forest. One day all the animals came before the queen to learn what kind of animal each was. The monkey came before the queen and bowed low. “You are a monkey,” the queen said, “You may walk upon the earth and swing in the trees, but you shall not fly.” The great eagle came next. “You are an eagle,” the queen said. “You shall fly through the air, but you shall not swim in the water.” Finally came the fish. ‘You are a fish. You shall swim in the river, but you shall not walk upon the earth.”

Each of the animals went home and they were content to be the animal they were created to be … for a while. One day the monkey said to himself. “Who does the lion queen think she is by telling me what I can and cannot do.” So the monkey climbed the tallest tree it could find. It jumped off, spread its arms out and, of course, began flapping wildly as it hurtled to the ground. At just the last second the eagle swooped down and caught the monkey. Setting him down on the ground, the eagle said, “Silly monkey, you are a monkey. You cannot fly.”

Then one day the fish thought, “Who does the lion queen think she is, telling me what I can and cannot do. I want to explore the land.” So the fish flopped up out of the water and onto the river bank. It flopped around and then began gasping for air. The monkey came running up, picked the fish up and tossed it back into the river. “Silly fish,” said the monkey. “You are a fish. You cannot walk up on the land.”

The next day the eagle thought, “Who does the lion queen think she is, telling me what I can and cannot do. I want to see what is at the bottom of the river.” So the eagle flew high up and then came down as fast as she could and dove into the river. She dove down to the bottom, but then got caught in the current. Gasping for breath, she felt something pushing it out of the current and up to the surface. “Silly eagle,” said the fish. “You are an eagle. You cannot swim under water.”

Sometimes we may think that God’s commands are kind of silly. Maybe we think we know better and can decide for ourselves what we can and cannot do. But God gave us his commandments because he loves us. By following his commands, we learn to be and to behave as the people God created us to be. [End] 

* * * * * * * * * *

I suppose that the Ten Commandments are probably taken out of their context more than about any other passage from scripture except the Lord’s Prayer. We use the Ten Commandments as this list of don’ts, well, and one do that comes to us as if they dropped down out of heaven. Now while I do believe that the Ten Commandments are commands that apply to all people of all times, and that they address the whole of human life, it would be good to first look at them in their biblical context, to see how and why they address all peoples and the whole of life.

The setting is that God has redeemed Israel and he has brought them into the wilderness to Mount Sinai. Moses is now going up and down the mountain to speak with God and then to tell the people what God has said. In this way God is making a covenant with the people. In 19:4 we read:

This is what you [Moses] are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'

God has been Israel’s God, and now he is instructing them on how to be his people. His desire is that they be his holy, set apart people so that the world might come to know something about God through them. They are to be a priestly nation and priests serve, like Moses, as intermediaries between God and others. The Ten Commandments are thus rules for the whole of life. They are in concise form how the Israelites are to live their whole lives in obedience to God so that the whole world might come to know how to live before God and thus to be truly and fully human.

Now what struck me about this passage I just quoted was the first line. “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob,” and then he repeats himself, “and what you are to tell the people of Israel.” Someone pointed out in our Classis meeting last week that it is an oddity that Jacob is sometimes referred to as Israel and sometimes as Jacob even after God changes his name. Several people in the Bible have their names changed: Abraham and Sarah, for instance. But after God changes their name they are never referred to by their old name, always the new one. Except Jacob / Israel.

So why is that? Well God changes people’s names because names have meaning. Jacob is named Jacob because he comes out of his mother’s womb grasping at his brother’s heel. Jacob literally means “heel grabber.” Figuratively it means someone who deceives another. As the story goes, of course, Jacob lives up to his name. He deceives his brother. He deceives his father and his uncle Laban. But after a life of deception, and a life mostly lived in exile, Jacob is given another name, Israel. Israel may mean a couple of things. It can mean, “God prevails,” or “God contends,” but it can also mean “one who struggles with God.” When Jacob is given his name he is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Jacob / Israel is the one who struggles with God and with humans. The descendants of Jacob and the people of Israel are thus those who continue to struggle with God and with humans. Are we not also the descendants of Jacob and the people of Israel? Do we not struggle with God and with humans? And is this not a key aspect of the  wilderness, of our experience of exile in which we find ourselves?

Are we not sometimes like the animals of the forest who try to disregard the commandments of the King and to be something we were not created to be? Are we not, like Adam and Eve, sometimes in exile because of our sin, because we have distanced ourselves from God by following our own laws?  Maybe our exile is because we struggle with God in this way. Or maybe we are in some form of exile or wilderness because others have sinned against us. Maybe it is because of our struggle with other human beings. Or maybe our exile or wilderness is found in our struggle with God over why he allows certain things to happen – why is there so much injustice? Why have do I have cancer? Why have I lost my job, or why can’t I find a job? In many ways our exile, our wilderness is a result of our struggles with God and other humans.

Last week we looked at the first step out of exile, to let God be God. That means to trust in God simply because God is God. It means to trust in God beyond the existential doubts and anxieties and fears we may have. Ultimately we are saved out of our exile and wilderness by trusting in God not because he will save us, but by trusting in God simply because he is God.

If the first step out of exile is to let God be God, the second step is found in the Ten Commandments. The second step out of exile is to allow God to have complete sway over our whole lives, over all aspects of our lives. It is, in short, as the Ten Commandments begin, to have no other gods before God

Many have noted that the Ten Commandments are divided into two sections. The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God, and the last six commandments deal with our relationship to humans. They are, in this way, a guide to how put an end to our struggles with God and with humans. They are a guide to how we are to live at peace, in shalom with God and with others.

So if we look at the first four commandments, we have a summary of how we ought to relate to God. First of all, God is to be God, and that means he is to be the only God. We are to have no other gods except the one true God. Like the Israelites, we continue to fail at this for we have created our own, modern gods. Money, Military and Economic power, and Success, to name a few.

We often think of the second commandment as the one that forbids idolatry because it actually forbids the making of images to which we bow down. Humans often break both commandments at the same time. They not only worship another god, but they craft an image to represent their god. In our worship of Money and Power, we don’t make physical images, but we do develop ideologies. But it is possible to break the second command without breaking the first. The Israelites made the golden calves in order to worship God through them. Today I think we can break the second commandment by making idols of our religious practices, our theologies, and even by making an idol of the Bible. We worship these human, and partial human creations in the case of the Bible, as a means to our worship of God. But instead of offering true worship to God, we seek to exert some level of control over God through these the idols we make.

The third commandment speaks to how we are to address God. We are to honor and respect God in all our speech.

The first four commandments address several aspects of our relationship with God. How we relate to God in general, materially, and how we speak about God. The fourth commandment addresses time. We are to set one day of seven apart when we don’t work so that we recognize that God is the Lord of time itself. Doing no work on the Sabbath is a gift to us for then we recognize that God is God. We are not ultimately responsible for all things. He is.

So now let us turn to see how the last six commandments cover perhaps the whole range of human behaviors and interests towards each other. The fifth commandment teaches us to honor not just father and mother, but all those who are in proper authority over us. The sixth commandment teaches us not to take the life of others but also to look out for the welfare of our fellow human beings. The seventh commandment forbids us from committing adultery, but also encourages us to honor our sexuality. The eighth commandment addresses how we should treat other’s possessions and what they are rightfully owed. As the third commandment deals with our speech about God, so the ninth teaches us to speak with truthfulness about our neighbors. Thus the fifth through the ninth commandments cover a whole range of human activity: relationships of authority, basic life, marriage and sexuality, property, and our speech.

The tenth commandment, like the first, is more a general commandment. It addresses not so much our actions, but our desires. We should not only not steal our neighbor’s car or commit adultery with his wife, we shouldn’t even desire to have his car or his wife. We should not only not kill our neighbor, but we should not hate her. Rather we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now after going through the Ten Commandments and thinking about what they teach us to do and not to do, it is easy to get things backwards. It is easy to think that the way we are saved, brought out of exile is by being good people and doing what we are told. We must not, however, forget the first step. The first step is to have faith in God. To accept the reality that he is God, more so, that he is our God and we are his people. The second step depends on the first for it is to live out of that reality. It is to put that faith into faithful motion. To follow the ways of God is a step out of exile and the wilderness because it is a move towards our true humanity. It is to put an end to our struggles with God and with humans and to move towards the people God created us to be. But we can only be faithful in taking this step when we base it not on our own efforts and strengths, but on what God says to Israel in the introduction to the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The second step is taken in response to the grace and mercy of the one true God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

February 25, 2018 … and I will be their God.
(Genesis 17:1-16; Mark 8:31-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a prince who loved a princess from the neighboring country. One day he decided he would ask her to marry him, so he gathered up all his bags of gold and travelled across his lands to her castle. When he arrived he had his servants carry all his bags of gold and to lay them before her. “Fairest Princess,” he said. “To show you how much I love you, I have brought all my bags of gold and laid them at your feet. Will you marry me?” The princess looked at him and the bags of gold and said, “No, I will not marry you for all your bags of gold, wealthy Prince.” The Prince went home saddened, but determined not to give up.

He thought and he thought about how he could win the heart of the Princess. Then one day he saddled his horse. He sharpened his sword. He filled his quiver with arrows, and he grabbed his lance. He set off into the mountains and there fought and slayed the evil dragon of the mountains. He rode as hard and fast as he could to the castle of the fair princess. “Fairest Princess,” he called out to her, “I sought and I slayed the evil dragon of the mountains to show you how much I love you. Will you marry me?” The princess looked at him and at his sword, and lance, and bow and arrows, and said, “No, I will not marry you for slaying the dragon, courageous Prince.” The Prince again returned home saddened, but determined not to give up.

He thought and he thought about what he could do to win the heart of the Princess. Then one day he gathered up all his musicians and they travelled to the castle of the fair princess. When they arrived the musicians got out their instruments and began to play as the Prince began to sing. His voice rang out like the clearest of church bells and the song he sang was so sad and beautiful and joyful all at the same time that all who heard it were weeping when it was over. “Fairest Princess,” he called out to her, “I have shown you how much I love you by singing my heart to you. Will you marry me?” The Princess looked at the musicians, and at the Prince. She wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, “No, I will not marry you for your beautiful song, talented Prince.” The Prince again returned home saddened, but still determined to win her hand in marriage.

He thought and he thought about what he could do to win the heart of the Princess, but he could not think of anything more to do. He had given her his wealth. He had shown her how courageous he was. He had performed his best for her. But he loved her so. He did not know what he was going to do, but he saddled his horse and traveled to her castle. “Fairest Princess, I have given you all my gold. I have slain the evil dragon for you. I have sung my best for you. I have done all this to show you how much I love you. I have nothing more but myself to give you. Will you marry me?” The Princess looked at the Prince and said, “Yes, I will marry you. That is all I ever wanted from you, just all of you.”

Sometimes we treat God in the same way that the prince treated the princess. We try to make God love us. We think God will love us if we do all the right things, or if we pray to him often enough, or if we give our money to the poor, or if we behave ourselves all the time. But Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Jesus is like the Fair Princess, he may think we are brave, or generous, or good because of the things we do for him, but all he really wants is us. God already loves us. We can’t make God love us. But he just wants all of who we are. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

This past week Evangelist Billy Graham passed away. He was ninety-nine years old. Billy Graham was at one time the most recognizable and most unifying figure in the Evangelical world. But he stepped out of public life several decades ago. Some people, when they reach a certain age, begin to slow down a bit. Some people, but not all, begin to think that once they reach their seventies or maybe their eighties, that maybe it is not the right time to start some new project. Maybe it is time to start slowing down.

Abram is ninety-nine years old. He has been living in the land of Canaan for 23 years. When Abram was just a youngster at age 76, God made a promise to him. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). Abram believed God. And he waited. And he waited. Yet he remained childless and Sarai, his wife, remained barren.

So Abram decided upon a plan. He thought that he would just take Eliezer, his servant, as his heir. Maybe he could just sort of adopt Eliezer, and God could fulfill his promises through him. But God came to Abram and said, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (15:4). And God made a covenant with Abram. He made a solemn agreement that Abram’s descendants would live in the land of Canaan.

So Abram waited. And he waited some more. Then Sarai decided upon a plan. She told Abram to have a son with her handmaiden Hagar. In that way Abram could have the son God promised him. So that is what Abram did. Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s son. And he named him Ishmael.

Ishmael grew and reached the age of maturity, 13 years old in that culture, the age when a child becomes accountable for their actions. God then appears to Abram again. Abram is now ninety-nine years old, about time to maybe retire and pass things on to the next generation. God again confirms his promises to Abram. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham and says, “You will be the father of many nations. … I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” The Lord then instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all men and boys in his household. This then becomes the sign of the covenant. If either party fails to live up to their part of the covenant, they will be cut off from the other.

But then God continues, “As for Sarai, you are no longer to call her Sarai, her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations.” Abraham falls on the ground laughing. “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” “What’s wrong with Ishmael?” Abraham asks. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” We figured it all out, says Abraham. While you have been waiting and waiting to make good on your promise, we figured it out for you. Look, you have already given me a son through Hagar!” But God brushes Abraham and Sarah’s plans aside and assures Abraham that Sarah will bear a son, and that he will call him Isaac, Laughter, and that God’s covenant with Abraham will continue through Isaac.

And so God, faithful to his promise, blessed Sarah, and she conceived. She bore a son, and they named him Laughter. The boy grew, and one imagines, became the apple of his father’s eye. Until one day God appeared to Abraham again. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burn offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (22:2). And so begins perhaps one of the most troubling stories in scripture. God commands child sacrifice. But perhaps you know the story. Abraham gathers his son and his servant and the wood for the sacrifice. As they are traveling Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burn offering?” Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (22:7-8). And so with every step towards Moriah, Abraham mumbles to himself, “God will provide, God will provide.”

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at the nature of the wilderness experience, the times of exile, we all experience as humans and even as followers of Christ. During this season of Lent we will make a turn and begin to focus on our return from exile, our exit out of the wilderness. How, in other words, do we return home? How are we forgiven? How are we reconciled to God? How are we returned to wholeness?

Abraham and Sarah are the architypes of exile and living in the wilderness. God calls them out of the land of their ancestors and tells them to go to the land of Canaan. There they live as aliens for decades. During that time, they have to flee to Egypt, not once but twice, to escape famine. If Abraham and Sarah are our parents in the faith, than our faith is born out of the experience of exile and wilderness wandering. Moreover they live in the wilderness because Sarah is barren. They have no children. They thus have no future. In that culture their life is practically meaningless for they will die and be forgotten and their property will go to just a servant.

God, however, promises to be their God. He promises to bring them out of exile and the wilderness. He promises to give them a land and a progeny. He promises to make them mother and father not just of a child, not just some children, but of kings and nations! He promises to be their God and he gives them a sign to insure this promise, the sign of circumcision. But what is their part of the covenant? God promises to be their God, but what are they supposed to do?

Abraham and Sarah think they know what they should do. They do all they can to help God along. They scheme and plan to get a child for themselves, or at least for Abraham. They first look to a servant, Eliezer. Perhaps they could just appoint him as Abraham’s heir. Then Sarah gives her servant to Abraham so that he might have a child with her. As a side note, it is ironic that when they are in Egypt Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister. She is then taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. Abraham did this to save his own skin for he feared that Pharaoh would kill him and take Sarah for himself if he thought she were his wife. So both Abraham and Sarah sacrifice their marriage in order to try to help God out, in a sense.

But God comes to Abram and reconfirms his covenant with him. And he clarifies that Abraham’s son will be Sarah’s son. As an assurance he gives Abraham a sign, the sign of circumcision. This sign, however, basically means that God doesn’t necessarily want any particular thing from Abraham. He doesn’t want Abraham to act on his own to fulfill some part of the deal. What circumcision means is that God wants Abraham, period. In the covenant God promises to be our God. What he wants from Abraham and from us is that we let him be God. But to let God be God means that we allow him to have us, all of us, our entire being. In circumcision part of the male body is cut off to signify that if we fail in the covenant, we will be cut off, all of us. To be a part of the covenant is to be all in. It is to let God be our God.

That means that we have to learn to trust God, to have faith that God will be God. In her book, The Vulnerable Pastor, Mandy Smith writes about how she and her husband left Australia, following the call of God into ministry, but also with the faith that God would someday call them back to ministry in Australia. As Seminary led to parish ministry in the states, and then to frequent but unsuccessful applications to ministry opportunities in Australia ever few years, Smith finally realized that she had to stop trusting in the God who would bring her home. She believed that maybe God was asking her, “Do you trust in the God who will take you home? Or do you just trust?”[1] She then compares her experience to that of Abraham and Sarah, “I wonder if God was asking Abraham, Do you trust in the God who will give you a child? Or do you just trust?” For Abraham that meant, ironically, that he had to trust in God not because of the promises God made, but in spite of the promises he made. Abraham had to learn to trust not that God would give him a son, but just to trust in God.

Jesus teaches much the same thing. He begins to teach his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem to be handed over to the religious and political authorities, to be killed by them, and then to rise from the dead. He teaches them that his role as the Messiah is to place his whole self, his life and his death, into the hands of God. His role is to in a sense, give up his immortality, to give up his being all powerful and all knowing. His role is to empty himself of his divinity and to let God be God.

He then says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). The cross we each must bear is the thing or the many things that we ourselves must die to in order to allow God to be God. Jesus, in a sense, died to be being God. We just have to die to pretending to be God. We may need to die to our trust in own strengths and abilities. We may need to die to our trust in politics or in wealth. We may need to die to our desire for God to rescue us out of our wildness. Whenever we put stipulations on God, whenever we say, I trust in God because I trust he will rescue me, then our god becomes the Rescue instead of God himself. God wants to be our God, but that means we must allow him to completely define and manage our relationship to him. We have to trust that God will be our God.

But when we allow God to be God, when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, when we lose our lives to God and to the good news of his kingdom, then we truly find ourselves, for then we are truly found in God. When we truly trust God just to be God, then we begin to notice more and more how God is faithful to his promises to us in ways we never imagined. We begin to notice how he is blessing us in ways we may not have been longing for. Maybe we had hoped, like Mandy Smith, that God would one day take us home. But if we trust in God to be God, we may find that God does bring us home, but not by bringing us back to the home we thought was home, but by redefining for us what home is. Maybe we had hoped to have a certain kind of career, or a certain kind of family life. If we allow God to be God, we will find that he will fulfill those hopes, but in ways that may redefine those hopes. If we lose our lives by allowing God to be God, then we will find our lives in what God provides for us. My friends, God has promised to be our God. Let us allow God to be our God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Into your hands, O Lord, we place our whole selves, trusting that your vision for our lives and the life of the world is far richer than we could ever ask or imagine. Renew in us daily the choice to lose our lives, to pick up our cross, and to follow you in loving service. Amen

[1] Mandy Smith, The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2015), 95.

February 11, 2018 Jars of Clay
(2 Corinthians 4:3-7; Mark 9:2-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Can anyone tell me what this is?  It is a chrysalis. Who can tell me what is inside it or who made it? A caterpillar. And what will come out of it? A butterfly. So when a caterpillar is born, it begins to eat, and it eats and eats and eats, and it grows, and grows, and grows. Until one day the caterpillar has grown enough. It attaches itself to a twig or a branch and then it spins this chrysalis with silk thread it makes. It closes itself up inside, and then it waits. And while it’s waiting, it changes. It transforms. And when it is fully formed, it breaks through the cocoon and comes out as a butterfly.

Christians have long taken the butterfly as a symbol for resurrection. You know that when Jesus died on the cross they laid him in the tomb, but three days later he was raised from the dead, he was resurrected. The caterpillar makes the cocoon and sort of dies for a time, but then the caterpillar is resurrected as a butterfly.

In our story this morning, Jesus goes up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and his body is transfigured before them. It shines with a brilliant white light. And two of God’s servants who had died many, many years ago, Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. In the story this is before Jesus dies on the cross. I think God transfigures Jesus and sends Moses and Elijah to talk with Jesus to help Jesus have the courage and trust he will need to die on the cross. God is sort of showing Jesus that death is not the end. So Jesus doesn’t have to be afraid of dying because God has promised to raise him from the dead.

This morning I have pictures for each of you of a caterpillar, a cocoon, and a butterfly. I want you to take these to help you remember that although Jesus died, God raised him from the dead. And even though each of us may die, or even though someone we love like a grandparent may die, God will one day resurrect us and give us new life, just like he resurrected Jesus and gave him new life. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In his short story, Christmas, Vladimir Nabakov writes of Sleptsov, a wealthy Russian nobleman grieving the recent death of his young son. He enters the coldness of their summer house that is locked up for the winter, and goes to his son’s study. He begins rummaging through his sons things – a notebook used as a diary, an old net with holes in it, spreading boards, black pins – the paraphernalia of his sons hobby, collecting butterflies and moths. His son would capture his specimens, pin them to the boards and label them with their appropriate Latin names. In the desk he also finds a cookie tin with a large exotic cocoon. On his death bed, his son had regretted leaving the cocoon behind in the summer home, but consoled himself that the chrysalis had probably died.

Gathering up some of his son’s things, Sleptsov puts them in a box and returns from the main house to the annex of the summer home, which his servant has now heated. He pours over his son’s notebook reading entries of where and how he captured various butterflies, what the weather was like, and various other activities until he groans, “I can’t bear it any longer.” Nabokov writes:

Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible – and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles … (sic) At that instant there was a sudden snap – a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin burst its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table. It stopped, holding on to the surface with six black furry feet, and started palpitating strangely. It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room, and the warmth had penetrated its taught leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out it was slowly, miraculously expanding. .. [I]ts wings – still feeble, still moist – kept growing and unfolding, and now they were developing to the limit set for them by God. … And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.[1]

In the midst of his grief, Sleptsov beholds nature’s model of resurrection, the transformation of a worm into a butterfly. Nabakov narrates the moment so that the reader is caught up in its beauty and awe. As one reads, you feel your chest rising as the butterfly shudders with “tender, ravishing, almost human happiness,” and then falling with a shared joy and contentment. The thing about life, human life, life in the natural world, is that if you take the time to notice, it will not fail to inspire and give you hope. The same is also true, if you take time to notice, of resurrection.

If you were to ask most people what Christianity was about, they might say something about Jesus coming to save the world. Some would certainly add that he came to save us from our sins. You would probably get lots of answers about how Jesus teaches us to love one another. And you might even get one or two answers that included something about Jesus rising from the dead. But unless resurrection is at the core of any answer about what Christianity is about, such an answer is woefully insufficient.

At its core, Christianity is a belief in the resurrection. It is the faith that after Jesus died on the cross, he was laid in a tomb, but on the third day, he rose again to a new and different yet similar physical, bodily life. The resurrection of Jesus, however, is not just a demonstration that he was actually the Messiah, or that he is God, the second person of the Trinity. It is not just a demonstration of God’s power and might. The resurrection of Christ, as Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 4:14, just after our text, that “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.” The resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee, it is the down payment, that those with faith in Christ will be resurrected too and will live in the age to come in his presence.

What’s more, the resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee, a down payment, that God will, in a sense, “resurrect” this whole world. Out of the brokenness and sin of this world, God will create a new world of wholeness and holiness. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s victory over sin, and death, and evil. It is the inauguration of the new age of God’s shalom-filled Kingdom, with Christ as its King. When we say that Jesus came to save us, it only makes full sense in the context of this reign of Christ over the whole creation.

It is no surprise, then, that within the arc of the biblical story from Eden to the New Jerusalem, resurrection serves as the primary narrative theme. All the themes of wilderness wanderings toward the promised land, of exile and return, of moving from sin to salvation, from sickness to health, from scarcity to abundance, all these themes point to and are summed up in the move from death to life, the theme of death and resurrection.

With that in mind, it becomes clear that Jesus’ transfiguration foreshadows his resurrection. In the preceding story, Jesus finally comes clean with his disciples and openly admits that he is the Christ, the Messiah. But then he begins to teach them that as the Messiah he must go to Jerusalem to be crucified, and then to rise from the dead. The preceding story foreshadows Jesus’ death. The transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of two supposedly dead prophets foreshadows resurrection. To make the point clear, Jesus instructs his disciples as they are coming down the mountain not to tell anyone about what happened until he rises from the dead. And, just like his teaching about his death, the disciples don’t’ get it. Mark tells us that “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant” (10).

The question this text poses to us is do we get the resurrection? Does the resurrection stir in us awe and wonder? Does it inspire faith and hope in us? Does it move us to worship? Does it lead us, because of our awe, wonder, faith and hope, to do what Jesus calls us to do in the preceding story where he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:34-35).  In other words, does Jesus’ resurrection move us to die to ourselves so that we might be reborn in Christ and for his Kingdom?

Or does it lead us to some other reaction as exemplified by the disciples? Does it lead to confusion and even unbelief? Does the disciple’s pre-modern pondering about what “rising from the dead” could mean, turn in to modern skepticism?  For we all know that science proves that people don’t rise from the dead? Or does it morph into post-modern relativism? All kinds of religions have stories of resurrection, after all. Or does Peter’s attempt to capture the moment, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5), – does that turn into some form of religiosity that shields us from the claim resurrection makes upon us.

Let me suggest that when Peter offers to put up three shelters for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, he is attempting to domesticate the moment through religious piety. The shelters Peter offers to build are not just any shelters. They are the tents, the tabernacles, the booths that the Jewish people built and still build today for the Festival of Booths. Every year Jewish people will build temporary shacks or tents to remember how they lived in tents for forty years while the wandered the desert of Sinai. The festival is meant to remind them of their time of wilderness wandering when God was so spectacularly and specially present to the children of Israel in the fiery pillar by night and the cloud by day. It reminded them of how God formed and shaped them into a holy nation by teaching them to rely upon him every day for manna and quail. It reminded them of how God saved them from the nations that threatened to wipe them out. It reminded them of the times God caused water to flow out of a rock. It reminded them of how God redeemed them from the land of slavery and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Peter, however, wants to use the booths not as a reminder of his utter dependence up on God, but to capture this moment as if to savor it for himself. He wants to use religion for the sake of the experience itself. He wants to use religion for what he thinks is good and desirous for himself. The purpose of religion and religious practices, however, are for God to shape us for his purposes. Mark writes, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them; and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” (7). Jesus brought Peter, James and John along with him not so that they could have a moving religious experience, but so that the image of his resurrection would move them to actually listen to him and follow him.

While I would not put the Christian Reformed Church or Hessel Park Church squarely in the American Evangelical box, it is one of the dominant religious cultures we interact with. It influences us. And one of the problems with American Evangelicalism is that it is especially susceptible to turning true religion into false religiosity. In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren, writes that Evangelicalism, “while beautiful in many ways, was formed and shaped by the concept of a market-driven religious experience.” From the revival meetings held during the First Great Awakening to the camp meetings held across the American frontier as people moved westward, charismatic preachers like George Whitfield and Charles Finney tailored their sermons and their religious services to create an intense, ecstatic religious experience. Warren writes, “My subculture of Evangelicalism tends to focus on … the kind of worship that gives a rush.”[2]  The problem with this, she concludes, is that “faith becomes a consumer product – it asks little of us, affirms our values, and promises to meet our needs, but in the end it is just a quick fix that leaves us glutted and malnourished.”[3]

Ironically, one of the ways we can exile ourselves from God is through worship itself. The very thing that God gives us in order to shape us into the image of Christ and direct us to serving in his Kingdom we use to assuage our guilt, to justify our own biases, and make us feel good about ourselves. Now certainly God does meet our needs in worship. When we come to worship, we can expect God to be present to us. We will at times be relieved of our angst, freed of our guilt, comforted in our sorrow, and met in our loneliness. But we must also expect that in worship we will be challenged, upset, angered, and even made to feel guilt, sorrow and angst from time to time. Instead of approaching worship with a shopping list of expectations and demands that it conform to our tastes, we must approach worship with open hands and open hearts, receiving both the comfort and the sorrow, the guilt and forgiveness, the angst and the joy as blessings given not for our purposes, but for God’s purposes.

In the children’s sermon I said that the resurrection of Jesus is a promise to us that we too will be raised from the dead. We need not fear death. It is a comfort. But resurrection should also make us a bit uncomfortable. Resurrection, life out of death, is awe inspiring. While we are assured of new life in the resurrection of Jesus, his resurrection also reminds us that we must first die before we are reborn. The resurrection is the light of the gospel that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church. It is that which gives us hope and grounds our faith so that we may love others as Christ has loved us. But, says Paul, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.”  Our bodies are weak and frail. We ourselves are broken and sinful. And so “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” says Paul, “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:

Give us faith to perceive his glory,

that being strengthened by his grace

we may be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Vladimir Nabakov, “Christmas,” in A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith (Beacon Press, 01) 34-39.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2016), 66.

[3] Warren, 69.

February 4, 2018 Everyone Is Looking for You!
(Mark 1:29-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When you do something wrong at home, do you ever get sent to your room? That was one of the punishments my parents used on my brother and me. But let me tell you, it was not a fair punishment. It wasn’t fair because my brother and I are very different people. I hated being alone. I always needed, or at least I always wanted someone to play with. I hated playing alone. I never had any hobbies because that meant sitting somewhere by yourself putting stamps or coins in an album or something like that. When I was growing up, my most popular question was, “Mom, can I call Tom, or Mike, or Matt, to see if they can come over to play?”

My older brother, Dan, however, loved being alone. He had several hobbies. He had a stamp collection, and he built model cars and airplanes. From an early age he knew he wanted to grow up to be an architect. He would stay up in his room for hours at a time and design his dream house. The thing I probably got most in trouble for was pestering Dan to play with me. And the thing that he got in trouble for was doing something mean to me so that I would leave him alone. So you see how unfair my parent’s punishment was? Being alone in his room was a reward for my brother, but for me it was utter torture.

In our gospel story today we read that Jesus got up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. He left the house and went to a deserted place, where he prayed. The gospels tell us several times that Jesus often went off by himself to pray to God. You see, Jesus needed to be alone with God so that he could do all the things he did. He needed to be alone with God so that he could preach to all the people he preached to, heal all the people he healed, and spend all the time he did teaching his disciples.

And that is one thing it has taken me many, many years to learn: I have learned to be by myself in a solitary place. But what I have learned is that I don’t have to be alone when I am by myself. If I pray, then I can be with God. So even though it took me many years to learn this, I don’t think you are ever too young to start learning. So the next time you are alone, remember that Jesus spent time alone too. He spent time alone praying to God. And so when you are alone, you too can pray to God and be with God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

I am going to say something that epitomizes the hypocritical preacher. But I am going to say it not because I am a hypocrite, but because I am honest, or at least I try my best to be appropriately honest. I am also going to say it because my guess is that I am not that much different than anyone else. Or rather that I am not alone in my failures. I assume that people in general fail in the same ways that I do. So, here goes: Do what I say, not what I do.

I say that because as I sat down to write my sermon, I realized that couldn’t say what I wanted to say and pretend that I completely practice what I wanted to preach. People say, “Preacher, practice what you preach. And if you don’t, you are a hypocrite.” Someone who is gracious, however, will say, “Preacher, do your best to practice what you preach. And don’t pretend that you are perfect.” And so, while I may not perfectly practice what I am preaching today, I am trying.

 So this past week I was sick for most of the week. Sickness can be God’s way of telling us that we need to slow down and take a break. I think I got sick not because God was trying to tell me anything, but because the flu is going around. But I guess I will never know because I really didn’t take the time to listen to God while I was sick. So here I was laying around for the better part of three days, and I failed to take the time I normally take to read scripture, pray, meditate, and just be alone with God. On Monday I just felt horrible, so doing much of anything but watching television was pretty difficult. But on Tuesday I worked from home most of the morning and some of the afternoon. And on Wednesday I again worked from home. And then on Thursday my to-do list was still pretty big, so I skipped my devotional time and jumped right into work. I guess my thought was that since I was sick I had better put all the energy I did have into getting the work done that needed to get done.

But that is exactly the kind of thinking each of us needs to get over in order to make time spent alone with God part of our daily or weekly routine. We have to get over the thinking that our agenda, our to-do list, our responsibilities for work or family or whatever are ultimately important and time spent with God is only as important as the time that we can fit it in. Part of our problem is that we think that quantity is more important that quality. We can get a lot done in a certain amount of time. It can be impressive. But at the end of the day the real issue is, the eternal issues is, what type of person have you been? What is the quality of your actions? Are they loving, kind, just, and gracious? Have your actions contributed to the peace and justice God desires for this world? What do you think God really wants from you? A scratched off to-do list that is a mile long, or a person who reflects the heart of Christ? What do you think your kids want from you? What is it that your friends want from you? A list of things that you have done with them or for them? Or a relationship of trust and love?

And what is it that shapes us into a person who reflects the heart of Christ? It seems pretty obvious that corporate worship and solitary prayer time were essential for Jesus. The gospels report several times that Jesus regularly went off by himself to pray to God. They also say several times that Jesus attended the synagogue as a regular practice. Think about that for a moment. We know that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. We know that he was, is God. Yet he was also fully human. So even Jesus had to have regular spiritual practices in order to maintain his relationship with God and to enable him to be the preacher, teacher, and healer he was. He could only do so much because he invested time with God. He could only be so much, so caring, loving, merciful, and gracious, because he spent time with God.

These past few weeks we have been talking about different kinds of wilderness experiences. We have looked at different ways we have been exiled from God. But last week we began to explore how God often uses the desert, the wilderness, whatever form that may take for us, as a means to bring us back to him, to bring us back from exile. In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Beldon Lane notes how indifferent the desert is to our human situation. He writes, “The desert scoffs at much we hold dear.”[1] The desert doesn’t distinguish between humans. It treats us each the same. It doesn’t care about our wealth, or our poverty. It is blind to our race, our gender, our social reputation. It ignores our accomplishments and our failures. Lane writes, “We cross its sands – unwelcomed, stripped of influence and reputation, the desert caring nothing for the worries and warped sense of self-importance dragged along behind us.”[2]

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus begins his healing ministry. Last week he cast out his first demon. This week he goes to the home of Simon, that is, Peter, and Andrew. There Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and word about him spreads. Soon all the people in the town bring to Jesus all those who were sick or demon-possessed. Jesus heals them and casts out the demons. Jesus’ reputation grows. His popularity sky rockets. He is becoming a local celebrity.

But very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (35-38).

Jesus goes off to a solitary place to escape the popularity contest, to escape the drive to succeed, to escape the demands placed upon him by everyone else. By himself, just as himself, he meets with God. And there his is reminded of who he truly is, of whose he truly is, and what his mission is. All those extraneous things get stripped away so that he can focus on being faithful to God the Father and to his mission to proclaim the good news of the coming kingdom of God.

Sickness can be a form of the wilderness for us. It is a form of exile. Like the desert a virus cares not about all the things we spend our days worrying about. A virus lays our weaknesses and our dependence bare. When we are sick, if we are attentive, we can take some time to recognize that we are all, at base, merely human. Sickness strips away many of those things we strive after day after day. Sickness doesn’t care how we look or how much money we make. When we are sick, the thing we desire most is just to feel better and have the strength and stomach to live a normal day. And when we are sick, we are made aware that we need healing. We can’t heal ourselves. Healing is something that happens to us. And so, if we allow it, sickness can be that place of wilderness that brings us in solitude before God and that opens us up to his grace that shapes our hearts.

Now, before I continue, I want to mention two caveats lest we romanticize sickness. First, while a virus may be indifferent to our social standing, our wealth, and other aspects of our human condition, poverty and injustice are not indifferent to human health. Someone once said, “The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor.”[3] The rich are better fed, live in healthier environments, and have other advantages that buffer them from getting sick and enable them to get treatment early so that a cough doesn’t turn into pneumonia. The poor and oppressed are more vulnerable and thus morely likely to become sick, and once sick you are spending more resources on your health, thus you stay poor, and you enter into a vicious cycle. So while sickness may be indifferent to our individual social and economic differences, such differences contribute to our health and well-being. Just because God can use sickness for good does not mean we should ignore the social, environmental and political factors that lead to greater rates of sickness and lack of access to healthcare among the poor and the oppressed.

Second, it is a mystery why God sometimes chooses to heal us, and sometimes waits until tomorrow, and sometimes it feels as though tomorrow never comes. While God may use sickness as a means to our healing and spiritual growth, it does not mean that we should welcome sickness in ourselves or that we should dismiss it in others. The right response to sickness, whether in ourselves or in others, is sorrow, compassion, and whatever we can do to bring healing, comfort, and strength.

So whatever form of wilderness you may be experiencing, or perhaps the next time you are sick, I encourage you to use your wilderness to be alone with God. And then use that experience to begin or fortify a regular practice of taking time alone with God, be that daily, or every other day, or weekly, whatever fits your period and station in life. Solitude and silence before God can strip us of all those things we think are so important, and all those things we spend our time chasing after that God is really indifferent to. When we come before God in silence and solitude, we come before him as just a mere human beings, which means as those who are made in his image, as those who are loved, and as those God wants to be in communion with. In his presence we are reminded that we are all in need of healing of one kind or another. And there we recognize that we can’t heal ourselves. And so, like the crowds flocking to Jesus to be healed, silence and solitude before God enables us to come before him and receive his healing touch. A touch that may heal our physical ailments or may not. But a touch that over time heals our spiritual ailments and transforms us more and more into people who reflect the heart of Christ. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silent prayer and meditation)

Almighty and every-living God, you Son, Jesus Christ, healed the sick and restored them to wholeness. Look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and shape our hearts that we may respond to it with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.

[1] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 191.

[2] Lane, 195.

[3] U2, “God Part II,” Rattle and Hum (Island, 1988).

January 28, 2018 Possession
(Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I wonder what you would do to know what is in this bag. Maybe I have some cookies in this bag. Maybe I have some money. Maybe I have some tickets to the circus. But I wonder what you would do to know what is in this bag. Would you pay me some money? Maybe if you gave me all a quarter I would let you look in this bag. Maybe I would let you look in this bag if you promised to share whatever is in here with all the other kids in the church. It is my job this month to straighten all the hymnals and bibles out and to pick up all the trash before the service. Maybe if you promised to help me do that next week, I would let you look in this bag to see what I have that you do not have.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes that “Knowledge puffs up.” If I know something that you don’t, I might think that I am better than you. I might think that I am smarter than you. I might use what I know to get you to do something for me. Maybe you know someone in school who thinks they know everything and so they think they are better than everyone else.

But is knowledge really that important? What do you think is more important: knowledge or love? Well, let me show you what is in this bag – nothing. There is nothing in this bag. Compared to love, knowledge is like this empty bag; it is worth nothing. Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” What God and Jesus want from us  is not so much that we know things about him and the world, but that we use what we know in order to love others. He wants us to use our knowledge to help others, to heal others, and to encourage others. He wants us to use our knowledge to build others up.

Would you pray with me? Dear God, thank you for all the knowledge about you and your world that we learn in school, in Children’s worship, in Sunday School, and in our own homes. Help us to use the knowledge you give us to love you and others. Amen. [End].

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Mark begins his gospel with some rather auspicious words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” When we as Christians hear the term “gospel,” we probably assume that there is really only one gospel, or well, maybe four – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We assume that there is only one gospel and that it is the good news, for that is what gospel means, the good news about Jesus. We assume, in short, that “gospel” is a Christian term. Likewise, we assume that “Son of God” defines Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. The good news is that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, has become the Messiah, the savior of the world.

When Mark wrote his gospel, however, the term gospel was often associated with Imperial politics. Inscriptions have been found that speak about the good news, not of Jesus, but of Caesar Augustus. In these inscriptions Caesar Augustus is proclaimed to be the savior of the whole Roman world, and all the nations Rome has subjugated. Through his power and strength he has overcome Rome’s enemies and brought salvation and peace and prosperity to the entire Empire. Moreover, in these pronouncements Caesar is often called not only Savior, but Son of God, for beginning with Caesar Augustus the Emperors of Rome were worshipped as semi-divine beings. In Mark’s world, the gospel had to do with Caesar.

Mark’s introduction is therefore an immediate political challenge to Caesar. Mark sets the story of Jesus over against the story of Caesar. Who is it that brings true salvation and peace? Who is the true Son of God?  Last week we saw that Jesus himself has an answer to that question: “The time has come,” he proclaims in v. 15, “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.”

In the movies there seems to be a particular technique used to highlight several important events in the story in a short amount of time. If the movie is about a sports team, they will splash several newspaper headlines before you, one after the other announcing the team’s victory over each successive opponent. If the movie is about a politician the shots will be of the politician giving a speech before the De Motte Society of Concerned Citizens, and then the Pipe Fitters Union in Chicago, then at the Am. Vets lodge in Milwaukee. The effect is to give the viewer snapshots of what is happening, showing major progress and development in the story without taking up much time.

I think Mark may have developed this technique. Mark doesn’t spend any time like Matthew and Luke with genealogies, or birth stories, or stories of when Jesus was young. He jumps right into the action after making his brazen announcement that the good news is about Jesus who is the true Son of God. He gives us a brief snapshot of John the Baptist, quickly relates the baptism of Jesus, and skips all the details of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After only 13 verses, John is already in prison, and Jesus is preaching throughout Galilee. He then calls his first disciples and starts healing people and casting out demons.

We see a quick succession of snapshots and then Jesus dives head first into his ministry. And the people respond. In verse 21 we read, “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” And after Jesus liberates a man who is possessed by a demon, Mark says, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” In the span of 14 verses Jesus has moved from an unknown nobody to the most talked about man in Galilee.

By chapter 2 Jesus’ popularity arouses the suspicion of the religious leaders. We read another round of quick snapshots in which Jesus tangles with the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. In chapter 3:6 we read, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians, that is there arch-enemies, how they might kill Jesus.” The good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, comes into quick and deadly conflict with King Herod, the representative of Caesar.

While Jesus’ popularity with the people arouses the suspicion of the religious leaders and thus develops the theme of the clash between Jesus and Caesar, Jesus’ popularity with the crowds is problematic in its own right. The crowds are amazed with Jesus. They recognize something different about him. But do they recognize what Jesus is really about? Do the disciples even get what Jesus is about? In the first half of the gospel Jesus is constantly having to explain things to the disciples and he upbraids them several times for totally missing the point. In the second half of the gospel, the disciples seem deaf to Jesus’ teaching that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed. And when Jesus is finally arrested, everyone abandons him. The disciples flee to save their own skins and the crowds turn on him. The gospel ends with the women running away from the tomb, scared out of their wits at the news from the angel that Jesus has risen from the dead. We are left hanging, wondering will the women get it? Will they tell the disciples, and will they get it? And will the disciples tell the crowds, and will they get it?

So while the crowds are impressed with Jesus in our text, we ought to look upon their enthusiasm with a bit of suspicion. Their amazement is a mile wide and an inch deep. Why are they really impressed with Jesus? Do they understand the true nature of Jesus’ authority? Or are they just impressed with Jesus’ power to order demons around? What is the difference, for that matter, between power and authority?

One could argue that Caesar’s authority comes from his power. Power is the ability to do something, to effect things. Authority, however, as I see it, is having not only to power to do things, but the right to do them. If you have authority, you are authorized to do things. A thief has the power and ability to break into your house and steal things. The police have the authority to arrest the him and throw him in jail. One of the problems with our world is that, without a moral base, authority is often given to or taken by those with the power. Rome rules over Jerusalem because Rome has the power to do so. In Rome’s eyes, their power gives them the right to rule.

Another problem with our world is that we often agree with this logic. We are impressed by power. We are, in a sense, possessed by power.  Many who supported Donald Trump for the presidency were impressed by his power and his wealth. They granted him authority because he promised to get things done. But are we all not impressed with power? We all want politicians who can get things done. We buy computers and smart phones because of the power they give us. We desire higher and higher salaries because of what we can do with our money. Money gives us power to travel, to educate our kids, to buy expensive clothes, and to eat at our favorite restaurants.

In many of our circles here at HPC, we deal with another currency of power – knowledge. In the university knowledge is power. It is knowledge, such as breakthrough research, that gets professors bigger and bigger grants, and larger and larger reputations. It is knowledge that leads to publishing papers and books. It is through knowledge that many of your careers advance. We are drawn to the power of knowledge.

The Apostle Paul, however, says that knowledge puffs up. Within the Christian community in Corinth, some of the Christians knew the truth that there is only one God, “the Father, from whom all things come,” writes Paul, “and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” This knowledge gave them the freedom and the power to eat the meat they bought in the marketplaces, meat that was taken from the sacrifices made to the pagan gods. Other Christians, however, were scandalized by this. They were still new to the idea that the gods they used to worship were not really gods. They saw eating such meat as idolatrous. So Paul urges  the Christians with such knowledge to refrain from using it for the sake of those who might be scandalized. He, in sense, acknowledges their power to eat the meat, but insists that their authority to do so, their right to do so, should be guided by love. For true authority derives from love.

We have been looking these past few weeks at different ways in which we experience exile and the wilderness. In our gospel lesson the man who is demon possessed obviously experiences exile because of his condition. He was probably ostracized by his community and his family and considered a danger to them. But Jesus uses his power with love to set him free and to reunite him with the community.

I have argued that on another level it is the crowds who are also in exile. They are amazed by Jesus’ power and they say by his authority, but they don’t truly understand his authority which derives from the love and leads him to the cross. When push comes to shove, they abandon him. They don’t want that kind of authority.

You see, since the Garden of Eden, we humans have been enthralled with knowledge that gives us power. Adam and Eve sought the knowledge that would give them god-like power, the power to know good and evil. We desire our own power rather than trusting in the love and in the power and in the authority of God. And for that Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. Our desire for such knowledge and power can drive us as well from the presence of God. For when we desire such power, we are far from the heart of God.

Exile from God, however, time spent in the wilderness, is not just a punishment from God, or a natural result of the fact that our sin repels us from God. The wilderness can be a place that God uses for our transformation. The wilderness is the place where God taught Israel, and then even Jesus, true reliance upon him and trust in him. In the wilderness ones needs are made strikingly apparent and desires are aroused because of the starkness of the environment.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, soon after Rome adopted the Christian religion under Constantine, soon after Christianity began to be domesticated by the power of the Empire, certain church leaders fled to the deserts of Egypt and the Sinai. They wanted to escape the lure of power that came with the wedding of the church and state. In the desert they found that two virtues led them to avoid the temptations of power and to embrace love: apatheia and arupnia.[1]

Apatheia, from which we get apathy, is a stance of indifference. In order to survive in the desert one had to become indifferent to the difficulties of living in the desert, the lack of water, and food. One had to be indifferent to the lack of community. One had to become indifferent to the many desires the lack of all these things aroused in you.

But true apatheia is not indifference to all things. It is indifference to the things that don’t truly matter. This is so because apatheia was paired with arupnia, or attentiveness. One had to pay attention to see where water collected in the desert. One had to be attentive to one’s health and strength lest one become sick with no one around to help. Ultimately one had to become attentive to God, to his blessings, to his presence, to his guiding you to know what is truly important.

In Jesus we see apatheia and arupnia developing into love. Jesus is indifferent to the opinions of the crowds. He is indifferent to the judgments of the religious leaders. He is indifferent to the power that comes with the terms Messiah, Son of God, and King. But his indifference to these things enables him to be attentive to those who come to him to be healed, to be exercised of demons, to be taught about the Kingdom of God. Love, you see, is being attentive the true needs of those who are placed in front of you.

Friends in Christ, let us not be amazed by the powers and authorities of this world, but let us be attentive to that which really matters so that we may follow our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] See Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 196 ff.

January 21, 2018 Casting Nets
(Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Who can tell me what this is [see photo here]?[1] This is a sculpture at Calvin College where Roxann and I went to school. We used to call it the “Swiss cheese,” but can you see what it really is?  I will give you a hint: it is an animal and it depicts a story from the bible. Maybe another picture would be helpful. What if I told you that this was a fish? This is a sculpture of Jonah in the whale. So if you look at this one way, if you look sort of at the outside, it just kind of looks like Swiss cheese. But if you look on the inside, then you see Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Who remembers the story of Jonah and the Whale? So God tells Jonah to go and warn the people of Nineveh that God will punish them unless they repent, but what does Jonah do? He catches a ship going in the opposite direction. But God sends a storm and the sailors have to throw Jonah overboard to save themselves and the ship. And God sends a big fish or a whale to swallow up Jonah. Then Jonah spends 3 days in the belly of the whale until Jonah prays to God to save him, and so the whale spits Jonah up on the shore.

So then God calls Jonah a second time, and this time Jonah obeys God. He travels to Nineveh and he warns the people that God will punish them unless they repent. And lo and behold the people listen. They pray to God for mercy. They repent of their sins.

You would think that would be a good ending to the story, but how does the story end? Jonah goes up on a hill to wait and see if God will destroy the city or if he will have mercy on them. And is Jonah happy or mad when God has mercy on Nineveh? And let me ask you another question: Did Jonah really obey God or not?

Sometimes we can be something like this sculpture. If you look at us from the outside, we can look one way, like Swiss cheese. We sometimes obey God and follow his rules and do all the right things. If someone looks at us from the outside, we look like a good person. But God sees the person inside of us. He knows not only if our hands and mouths and feet are obedient, he knows if our hearts are obedient. God looks at our insides, into our hearts. But you know what? Even if our hearts are not as good as our outsides, God still loves us and if we love him and trust in him, he will change our hearts to be like his. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

I wonder what the people of Israel thought of Jonah. The Bible doesn’t say much of anything about Jonah outside the book of Jonah, but I wonder what Jonah was like. The kings of Judah and Israel often didn’t have much time for the prophets of Israel. The prophets tended to be a stick in the wheels of palace policies. They were often harbingers of bad news. The common people, however, often held the prophets of God in higher esteem. Elijah and Elisha were heroes of the people even though Ahab and Jezebel hated them.

If Jonah was anything like the other prophets, I imagine he was an example of model behavior and obedience. Here was a man of God. He heard the word of the Lord. He was upright and righteous in all his ways. Even Jonah’s disobedience encourages us to believe this. Sure, Jonah ran away from God and refused to go to Nineveh. But what do you expect from any self-respecting Israelite? The people of Nineveh were the enemies of God’s people. They were pagan idol worshippers. What would God, let alone the people of Israel, let alone a prophet of Israel have to do with them except to condemn them? On the outside Jonah looks like a model of righteousness.

The book of Jonah, however, is a story about repentance. On one level the plot revolves around the sinful people of Nineveh. They are sinful, so God sends a prophet to convince them to repent of their sins. But on another level, the story is about the repentance of Jonah. Or, rather, whether or not Jonah will repent? But what does Jonah have to repent of? If you read chapter 2 closely, when Jonah is in the belly of the whale, you will notice that Jonah never actually repents of his disobedience. In fact, Jonah emphasizes the difference between himself and the people of Nineveh in verse 8: “Those who cling to worthless idols, turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.” Even in the belly of the whale Jonah clings to his righteousness over against the sinfulness of the people of Nineveh.

We often think of repentance in terms of particular sins, the things that we do that are contrary to the laws or the will of God. We look at people like the people of Nineveh who are worshipping other gods, probably doing all sorts of immoral things, and think it is people like that who need to repent.

Maybe once in a while we ourselves disobey God. We may be like Jonah who disobeyed a direct command from God and ran away from him. Maybe from time to time we do something similar. We tell a lie. We cheat a bit on our taxes. The cashier makes a $5 mistake in our favor and we just take it as good fortune. We lust after someone we shouldn’t be lusting after. OK, maybe we disobey God more than just once in a while, but when we think of repentance we often think of it in terms of particular sinful acts. We commit a sin and we need to repent.

And that is very true. We do commit particular sins and we need to repent of them. Sin drives a wedge between us and God. Just like when you say something mean and hurtful to your friend, it creates a separation between the two of you. Sin therefore casts us out into a state of exile. We have been looking at different ways we experience the wilderness and exile. We all, to some extent, experience exile and the wilderness because of our sinfulness. While Jonah is a story about repentance, it is also a story about exile and return. Jonah’s disobedience was a willful act of throwing himself into exile. God sends him to Nineveh and he takes the next ship going as far away from Nineveh, and Israel for that matter, as possible. God then sends a storm that leads to a second experience of exile – Jonah is cast into the ocean and swallowed up by a fish.

But Jonah experiences a third period of exile in the story. After he proclaims his message to Nineveh, he goes out and sits down looking over the city to see what will happen. When God relents and has mercy on Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry. He prays to the Lord:

Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live. (4:2-3)

Jonah experiences this third state of exile not because of any particular sin he commits. He doesn’t do anything that is disobedient. There is no breaking of the law here. Rather, he experiences this exile because his heart is far from the heart of God. In other words, repentance is often about something far deeper than the various sinful acts we commit. Sin can in some ways cause a separation between us and God, but at a deeper level our lack of intimacy with God, the discord between our heart and God’s heart is really what causes us to sin. We finally find out in chapter 4 that Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1 was caused by the fact that Jonah did not have the same love and compassion for others as God does. Even though on the surface Jonah may have presented himself as an upright, righteous and obedient Israelite, his heart was far from God. He lacked intimacy with God even though God spoke to and through him as one of his prophets. He may have been one of the most enthusiastic worshippers of God in the temple, but in his heart he may as well have been trapped in the belly of a whale. He was in exile from God because his heart was not like God’s.

When Jesus begins his ministry, Mark summarizes his basic message: “The time has come,” Jesus proclaimed. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” But what was Jesus calling people to repent from? Was he calling people to repent from particular acts of disobedience? Certainly, but that doesn’t seem to be his main focus. You don’t hear Jesus haranguing the sinners of Israel, calling them to give up their loose ways of living and to repent of their sins. Rather, we see Jesus welcoming the sinners, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors into his presence. The good news is that even these folks are welcome into his company and thus into the Kingdom of God. The good news is exactly what Jonah says about God but also hated about God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

And when Jesus comes across Simon and Andrew, and then James and John, what is it that he calls them to repent from? Are these common fishermen moral degenerates? Are they filled with lust? Are they cheating their neighbors? Is there something wrong with being a fisherman? No. In fact the evidence from the other gospels indicates that these men were rather zealous and probably fairly righteous Israelites. They were the type who were looking for God’s Messiah. They longed for God. It isn’t obvious what the disciples need to repent from.

But as the story unfolds, we begin to see. The disciples have certain ideas about God and who God’s Messiah would be and what God’s Messiah would do. Over and over again they refuse to understand what Jesus plainly teaches, that as the Messiah he has come to die at the hands of the religious leaders and at the hands of the Romans. That is his mission. Instead, they tag along with Jesus hoping that they will receive rewards of prestige, power, and position by their association with Jesus. They argue about who is the greatest among them and they jockey for a place next to Jesus when he comes into his reign. They expect Jesus to liberate and vindicate God’s people while bringing God’s judgement on the enemies of God’s people. They have hearts much like the heart of Jonah.

But Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners and even for the enemies of God’s people. And so Jesus calls the disciples, in a sense, to repent. “Come, follow me,” he says. “And I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). He calls them to truly believe that the Kingdom of God has come near. He calls them to live out of God’s kingdom by living out of the compassion and mercy of God, demonstrating that the kingdom is open even to sinners. He calls them to cast their nets over those who have been told that they are not good enough or righteous enough or holy enough to be loved by God. He calls them to gather those people in and to show them that the compassion, grace, mercy and love of God is for them. He calls them to repent of having a heart like Jonah so that God may give them a heart like his own.

The question regarding repentance then is not so much what sins do we each have to repent of, but how do our hearts need to repent? In what ways do we need to turn our hearts from seeking and desiring the things this world values or the things our culture teaches us to desire, and toward the things that God desires, towards those whom God loves. The question of repentance is most deeply how do our hearts need to be conformed to the heart of God?

On one level the act of repentance practiced through the confession of sin is about confessing our acts of disobedience and receiving his forgiveness. We do this most often and easily in the corporate act of confession on Sunday mornings. It is also necessary, but a bit more difficult, to practice confession of sin by ourselves in prayer before God. This can be a bit more difficult if we take time to truly examine ourselves and open up to God and ourselves confessing not only our sinful acts, but the sinful desires and motivations that drive our acts. Even more difficult than this, but also necessary, is to confess our sins to one another. If we have sinned against another person, it is not enough just to confess our sin to God for we have not only created a barrier between ourselves and God by our sin, but we have separated ourselves from the person we have sinned against. If we confess our sins to the person we have wronged, then we open up the door to true communion with that person and we are much less likely to commit that same sin again. Likewise, it is also helpful and difficult to confess our sins to a confessor, a person we trust with whom we can be open and honest with. In doing so, we are not only less likely to commit those sins again, but God’s grace to us is made more tangible if we receive it in the presence of another person. So on one level the confession of sin is a means to bring us out of exile and restore us to community and intimacy with God and with others.

On a deeper level, however, the practice of repentance and confession is one way in which God slowly forms and changes our hearts to become more like his own heart. As those who know we are supposed to obey God, we become practiced as creating an image of someone who is obedient to God. Like Jonah, we create a persona that from the outside looks and acts righteous and obedient and like a follower of Jesus. On the inside, however, our hearts can be far from God.  Through the confession of sin we die to ourselves, we die to our false selves so that God can raise up our new, true selves by shaping and conforming our hearts to his heart. And as our new selves take shape we are then enabled to join with God and with Jesus in their mission. He calls us to be fishers of people and so he enables to cast our nets over those who need to hear that God’s love is for them. The question of repentance is: do  you have a heart that rejoices at the opportunity to share and demonstrate God’s love for all people? The good news is that God’s love is even for people like Jonah.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silent prayer

Loving God, through your Son you have called us to repent of our sin,

to believe the good news and to celebrate the coming of your kingdom.

Like Christ’s first apostles, may we hear his call to discipleship,

and, forsaking old ways, join with Christ in his mission,

proclaiming the gospel of new life to a broken world and to broken people;

through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.

One God, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Robert Jensen, “Jaunt,” (Sculpture, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, 1977).

January 14, 2018 Can anything good come from Nazareth?
(1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139; John 1:43-51) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have a couple of pictures to show you. Can any of you guess what this is? When I was about 4 or 5, I made this at school. This sits on a shelf at my parents’ house with a bunch of small animals that they have collected on their travels. Here is a hint: it used to have ears, but they fell off years ago. Evan and Elise like to tease me about this. They call it a skunk. But what do you think it is?

When I was 4 or 5 my brother and I wanted a dog for a pet, but my mom didn’t much like dogs, so they bought us a rabbit. He was mostly black with a white nose and a white tail. So this is my sculpture of my pet rabbit.

Now I am not much of an artist. My kids would say, “Obviously.” But I loved my rabbit and I did my best to make this clay figure of her. You could say I poured my love into it. And so I think that is why my parents kept this. They knew that it wasn’t a great piece of art, but they knew that it represented my best efforts and my love and my care. Have you ever made something that you poured your love and care into?

Sometimes we may feel a bit like this rabbit. We may feel that we are not perfect. Maybe we feel like we are not very pretty, or that we are a bit misshapen, or that we are missing some important parts. But in the Psalms we are reminded that we were all made with great love and care. In Psalm 139 we read, “You, [O God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (13-14). So if you ever feel bad about yourself, I want you to remember that God made you with all his love and care. You are precious in his sight. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” With such ominous words Samuel’s ministry before the Lord and his leadership of Israel begins. “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” It begs the question, why was the word of the Lord rare? Why were there not many visions? Did God choose not to reveal himself to his people? Did he deliberately hide from them? Or were God’s people not seeking the voice of the Lord? Was the word of the Lord rare because there was no one listening? Were there not many visions because no one cared to look? Or maybe they were looking in all the wrong places.

I wonder if that is why faith is so hard for those of us who live in the modern world. Is God silent? Or are we failing to listen? Does God not reveal himself? Or are we just looking in the wrong direction? Ever since Descartes sought to ground his being in his ability to know, ever since he said, “I think, therefore I am,” we modern humans have been seeking our grounding in ourselves instead of in God. We modern humans think we have become the arbiters of what is true and what is false, of what is knowable and what is unknowable. But if we begin with ourselves, then, in a sense, we are listening to ourselves instead of to God.

For instance, many people say they can’t believe in God because he is too judgmental. But then they look at the world and shake their head in disgust at all the injustice and oppression and poverty and suffering in the world. Then they also say that they can’t believe in God because he allows all of that injustice, oppression and suffering. But it is God’s judgments that have put an end to the injustices and oppression of the nations. Many people don’t believe in God because God refuses to conform to their expectations of who God should be.

And so when God shows up, we respond with the same astonishment and suspicion as Nathaniel. When Philip tells Nathaniel that he, Peter and Andrew have found the long awaited Prophet and that he is Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel responds, “Nazareth?! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When God shows up, we say, “That can’t possibly be God, because that is not how I have imagined God to be!”

Of course it is easy to point the finger at those who do not believe in God. What is hard is to recognize that maybe we are more like Nathaniel than we care to admit. Are we not all guilty of trying to create God in our own image? Have we all not attempted to put God in a box? How often do we place demands upon God? God, if you do this for me, then …? How often do we get frustrated with God or wonder where God is when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the ways we think he should answer them?

Scholars believe that Nazareth was a small agricultural village of around 500 people in the first century. It wasn’t a major commercial town. It was not an administrative center. It was a town of no importance. Nathaniel probably had the same hope as many of his day. They longed for a Messiah from God who would free Israel not only from the Romans, but also from the cruel imposter, King Herod.

King Herod, you see, attempted to claim the title King of the Jews for himself. He attempted to realize some of the hopes and dreams the people had for a Messiah by rebuilding the temple. And he did this on an impressive scale. The previous temple had stood on a plateau on the top of Mount Moriah. Herod basically built up the whole of Mount Moriah to the height of the original plateau, thus multiplying the size of the temple courts. Some of the stones in the giant walls made to do this weighed over 100 tons.

So King Herod builds this beautiful, magnificent temple to win the hearts of the people, but yet he also ingratiated himself to the Roman Emperor. In Caesarea he built a temple to Caesar for the worship of the Emperor. And he also built himself numerous opulent palaces as well as the fortress at Masada which sat on top of a huge plateau next to the Dead Sea. Moreover Herod was an extremely cruel and cold-blooded ruler. He stamped out any opposition to his rule, whether it be by a band of messianic revolutionaries or by perceived threats from his own sons, with merciless brutality. Most of the Jewish people saw through Herod and new that he was no Messiah.

But while most of the Jewish people hated Herod as a cruel imposter, at least Herod did things on a scale that matched the hopes and dreams of the people. He acted with strength and power. He made the Temple into one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Would not God’s Messiah do such things when he comes? What, then, could some nobody, the son of a common laborer from Nazareth ever amount to? Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Let me suggest that we sometimes experience a kind of exile, a kind of wilderness wandering, because of our own expectations about who God should be and what God should do. Maybe we have a broken relationship with a brother or a parent or a child. We pray and we pray for reconciliation, but our relationship remains strained and our loved one distant. And we wonder, “Where is God in this?” He feels absent to us. Or maybe one of our loved ones has an illness. Or maybe we ourselves suffer some form of malady. We pray and we pray for healing, but our prayers go unanswered. And we wonder, “Where is God?” And he feels absent to us.

Or maybe we have a heart for some issue of injustice in the world. How long have we been praying for the Syrian refugees? Yet they remain in the camps, hungry, cold, and underserved. How long have we prayed for a just and workable immigration policy? Yet just when things look like they may be moving in some direction, a politician says something racist and hopes for agreement between the parties come crashing down. We look out at the suffering and the injustice in the world and we ask, “How long, O Lord. Will you hide your face forever?” And God feels absent to us.

When Nathaniel says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip responds, “Come and see.”  And then we read in verse 47, “When Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Ironically, Jesus, “Here is an Israelite who is a straight shooter. You can believe what this guy says.” “That’s right,” Jesus is saying, “I come from the two-bit town of Nazareth, but I know you.” “How do you know me?” Nathaniel responds. “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”Then Nathaniel declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.’ Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.’”

The point of this exchange is not that Jesus demonstrated some supernatural power. It is not that he had some ability to see beyond our normal human ability. That may be true, but even Jesus says, “That is nothing.” The point is that Jesus knows Nathaniel. What matters most is not that we know Jesus or God, but that God and Jesus know us.

The Psalmist says:

You have searched me, Lord,

    and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

    you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

    you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

    you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

    and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

    too lofty for me to attain.

Last week I spoke about being in exile in the wilderness, but we were assured that there was no place we could be that was outside of God’s power and care. God made all things. The Psalmist reiterates this same point in verses 7-12:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

    the night will shine like the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

This week we are assured that there is no wilderness we can enter, no place we can be, whether that be a physical space or a mental, emotional or spiritual space, where God does not say, “I see you, and I know you.” For when we say that God created all things, we can take comfort with the psalmist that he created you and me.

For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

And so our way out of whatever exile we are in, our path out of the wilderness begins not with our knowledge of God, but with God’s knowledge of us. It begins where the Psalmist ends:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

The way out of our exile is to rest in God. It is to be known by God. It is to know and trust that we are loved by God, that he sees us as his precious possession, that there is not place and no experience we can be in that he is not watching over us. And so it is to trust that God may not work in the ways we want him to or expect him to. He may come to us and work among us like Jesus did, like a man from Nazareth.

It is not that God doesn’t care about injustice and oppression, it is not that he doesn’t care about our own personal illnesses and anxieties, but God comes to us not like King Herod, but like Jesus of Nazareth. When he comes to us he comes sometimes to heal, but always to be with us, to suffer with us. He comes to work in us and to transform us. He comes to deepen our faith and to form us into his image. He comes to create in us the character of Christ. He comes to enable us to live more truly and fully not only in this life, but also in the life to come. For his is desire is to lead us out of exile and into the way everlasting. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[silent prayer]

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.





January 7, 2018 Into the Wilderness
(Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning we are going to read the story of when Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Well just after he was baptized, the Spirit of God sent Jesus out into the desert where he stayed for forty days. Have any of you been to a desert? Deserts are often really dry places. They are hot in the day time and the get very cold at night. They are lonely places. Not many people live in the deserts and Jesus was all alone, except that he was tempted by Satan. So Jesus had a hard time in the desert. He was hot and cold. He was probably hungry and thirsty. He was probably lonely and on top of it all he was being bothered by Satan.

Do you ever have difficult times? Maybe you have a bad day at school when for some reason you don’t get along with your friends very well. Maybe you have days when you miss someone who can’t be with you. Maybe you have sad days, or lonely days, or just days when you feel bad. Sometimes we can get really cranky when we are hungry or thirsty. And when we have our bad days, sometimes we feel worse because we think that we are the only one feeling that way.

But we are not the only ones that feel that way. Jesus experienced all those things too. He had difficult days like all those days he spent in the desert. And so when we have difficult days, when we have sad days or lonely days, or just plain bad days, we can pray to Jesus. We can tell him about our bad day, and he will know how we are feeling. Then we won’t feel so alone for Jesus will be with us and we know that he loves us. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Just after Jesus is baptized, just after he hears a voice from heaven claiming him as the Son of God, the beloved, the Spirit of God sends Jesus into the wilderness. The wilderness runs through the whole biblical story as a minor theme. When God creates the Garden of Eden, the image is that beyond the Garden, beyond this one cultivated place, lies the wilderness. The place on the map that says, “There be dragons here.”  More so, Genesis 1 begins with a vast wilderness, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.”

In Genesis 1 God “creates” by fencing off the vast chaos of wilderness. He creates light to cast back the wilderness of the dark. He bounds up the waters of the deep so that sky and dry ground can appear. He creates space in which humanity and all his creatures can have life and can flourish. And when he creates humanity in his image, he invites humanity to partner with him in this creative act of taming the wilderness. And so when Adam and Eve sin, when they turn away from God, instead of subduing the wilderness, they are cast into it. They are thrown out of the cultivated Garden and sent away East of Eden into exile, into the wilderness.

Exile and wilderness, and at a deeper level, death, form intertwining themes that run through the story of Israel. Abraham and Isaac, as with Jacob in his old age, all flee to Egypt, out of the Promised Land to escape famine. Jacob lives most of his life in exile in Haran working for his uncle Laban. Elimelech and Naomi move to Moab also to escape a famine. David spends years in exile outside of Israel with the Philistines, but also years within Israel hiding from King Saul, exiled from Saul’s court. And at the end of his life, he flees from his own thrown in Jerusalem in fear of his own son, Absalom.

Of course all these individual stories of exile recall or foreshadow Israel’s 400 years of slavery in Egypt, their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and their 70 years of exile in Babylon. John Baptizes Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, at the very place that Joshua led the people of Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land for the first time. The theme of wilderness runs through the Biblical story because the defining stories of Israel involve exile and return. God’s people developed their very identity out of being a people who are often living in exile and wandering in the wilderness, waiting upon and hoping in the salvation of God.

It may perhaps be a little jarring, but it is no surprise, then that just after the voice of God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son, the Spirit casts Jesus into the wilderness.  The church Bibles soften verse 12 a bit. They simply say that the Spirit “sent him into the wilderness.” The Greek verb, however, means to cast out, drive out, throw out, or to expel. While Jesus’ baptism is an affirmation by God the Father of Jesus, while God anoints Jesus through his baptism and with the Spirit, marking him out as God’s Messiah and empowering him for his mission, Jesus also identifies with the people of Israel in his baptism. Mark tells us in verse 4 that all those around him being baptized are undergoing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In his baptism, Jesus is, in a sense, taking on the sins of God’s people. He is becoming one with them.

Part of his mission, then, is to undergo the results of sin. The Spirit casts Jesus into the wilderness to join Adam and Eve, and the children of Israel in exile. The Spirit casts Jesus into the wilderness to join us and all humanity in our exile.

Over the next several weeks and on through Lent we will be examining this theme of exile and return. First we will look at the nature of exile and wilderness. How do we experience exile?  Then during Lent we will look at our return. How do we return from exile? Or, rather, how does God lead us out of exile and toward the salvation found in communion with him? But first, exile and wilderness.

I spoke of the desert with the children, but the term Mark uses can describe a number of wilderness places. The wilderness could be a desert, or the top of a mountain. It could be a swamp, or an ocean. Imagine being cast adrift in the sea, water everywhere you look, but not a drop to drink or anything to shade you from the sun.

Just as there are many types of wilderness in this world, so there are many ways we experience exile.  We may enter into various types of spiritual, mental, moral, and physical wilderness. Sometimes our exile comes as a result of our own sinfulness. We, like Israel, tend to worship other gods and fail to treat others with mercy and justice. Sometimes our exile, like the famines in Israel, comes to us because of the forces of nature. We can experience the wilderness of illness, whether a sudden, short term illness, or a long, drawn out illness. There are physical illnesses as well as mental and spiritual illness that drive away us from others and become a barrier to our relationship with God.  I frequently visit Betty who suffers from dementia, and Nassi who suffers from Schizophrenia. Both live in alternate mental realities that isolate them from other people but also sometimes seem barren of God’s presence. Some people live in a social wilderness, exiled from loved ones or spurned by our community. The poor and oppressed live in an economic and political wilderness, exiled from their proper place within society. Many of us live in cultural exile for we have been lured away from the Kingdom of God by the neon lights of our consumeristic and materialistic culture. And some of us live in exile by believing that we are doing all the right things. Like the religious elite of Israel, our very religion becomes a wedge that drives us further and further from the God we think we are pleasing.

This coming week I invite you to take some time in silence and in prayer. Instead of trying to ignore or deny your own form of exile or wilderness, come to terms with it. Ask yourself, how do I experience exile? Am I suffering from depression? Do I feel isolated spiritually or socially? Do I struggle with some particular sin that keeps me from growing in my relationship with God and with others? Am I lost in the wilderness of this culture, seeking its rewards and living according to its norms rather than seeking God’s Kingdom first? Ask yourself, “How do I experience exile and the wilderness?”

Once you have been honest about your own wilderness, your own form of exile, remember these things about the biblical theme of exile and the wilderness. First, to experience the wilderness is to be human. Sometimes we experience exile because of our own doing. Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). We all experience some form of exile because we are sinful. But we also all experience the wilderness because we live in a broken world. We experience the wilderness because of the sinfulness of others. The story of Israel is the story of exile and return because that is the story of humanity

Second, because the story of exile and return is the story of Israel, because it is the story of humanity, it is the story of Jesus. Jesus came to be Immanuel, God with us. When we experience the wilderness, we can trust that Jesus has been there as a real, flesh and blood human being. He experienced loss, ostracism from his community and even his family. He was betrayed by his closest friends. He knew the death of loved ones. And ultimately he experienced death himself. But now, risen from the grave and ascended into heaven, he has promised to remain Immanuel with us. Through his Spirit he now remains with us in whatever way we experience the wilderness and exile.

Third, God made the wilderness. Genesis 1 begins as though the chaos was just present at the beginning. The darkness and the waters of the deep just happened to be there. But the Gospel of John assures us that all things we made in and through the Word of God. And if all things were made by God, it means that he made the chaotic waters of the deep and the Leviathan that dwells within them. He made the desert. He made the inaccessible mountain peaks. He made the frozen tundra. The psalmist in Psalm 29 reminds us that God’s voice is “powerful” and “majestic.” It “thunders over the mighty waters” and it “shakes the desert.” “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood.”  There is therefore no place or experience that is outside of God’s power, beyond God’s ability to save. Moreover, there is no experience that God can’t use as a means for our return to him. There is no adversity or pain or suffering that God can’t use to transform us, and to deepen our trust and faith and love for him. For Jesus experienced the greatest exile – death and hell – and overcame them through his faith and faithfulness. Jesus has led the way from exile to return, from sin to salvation, from death to resurrection. Jesus reigns even over sin and death.

And finally, fourth, sometimes we experience the wilderness because are human, but if we follow Jesus, we will experience it because the Spirit will cast us out into the wilderness. To follow Jesus is to follow him to the mountains but also through the valleys. In our baptism we are joined to Christ for in his baptism he was joined to us. Part of our mission, therefore, is to be in the wilderness with others. We are called to walk along with others as they experience exile and the wilderness. And we are called to experience our own form of exile in ways that point others to Christ. Our wilderness is an opportunity for us to imitate the humility of Christ, to exhibit trust in him and hope in his Kingdom, and to bear witness to the love and mercy of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen


Almighty God, you are the author of all beginnings

and all that is pronounced “good.”

In you both day and night have purpose,

both calm and storm have meaning.

Open the eyes of our imagination,

that we may be ready to receive your gifts

and discern your activity in our midst.

In the name of Jesus,

in whose baptism we too are baptized. Amen.

December 24, 2017 Reality, Grief, Hope
(Psalm 89; Luke 1:26-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a beautiful castle in the center of a beautiful city. Each year he would visit one village somewhere in his kingdom and give an award to the family with the nicest home. The people of Greenfield became very excited. What if the King were to visit their village? So they set to work, each to their own home. The people mended and painted their fences. They planted flowers and new bushes, and trimmed back the old ones. They painted their houses, fixed the shingles on their roofs. Dusted and cleaned and polished and waxed everything that could be dusted and cleaned and polished and waxed.

One day an old, weary traveler came in to town. He stopped at the first house and asked if they had a place that he could stay. He offered to help in any way he could, but it was obvious that the old man was too old and weak to be of much help. The man of the house could hardly stop painting to tell him they were too busy for guests. And so it went, house after house, everyone was too busy to be bothered by a guest until he arrived at the last house at the end of the lane. The Widow was glad to take him in.

In the morning she made him breakfast and he asked, “So what do you have planned today? “I think I will mend the fence today,” said the Widow. But ten minutes later the Widow was bustling out the door with some soup and bread in her basket. “I have to go and visit Mrs. Kim,” She said, “She is ill and so I am going to bring her a meal.” Every morning the Widow would say, “I think I will paint this today,” or “I think I will plant some flowers today,” but then she would gather up some things and hurry off to visit someone who was sick or in jail or about to have a baby. And so it went, day after day, until the old man finally said he had to be moving on, and he left.

The day finally came for the King’s visit. A messenger arrived and announced that Greenfield had been chosen for the King’s visit. Every gathered at the entrance to the town. The band got ready and someone quickly made a welcome sign. They king came riding in with an entourage of knights. He paused at each house, looking them all over and admiring the beautiful gardens and perfectly painted fences.

When he came to the Widows house, he sat on his horse looking at it for a long time. The Widow stood in front of him, head bowed in shame. The paint on her house was chipping off, the gate in her fence hung on one hinge, and the hedge was overgrown. The king turned toward all the people and said, “The King’s Award for nicest home this year goes to … the Widow.” Everyone gasped in astonishment. “I came here weeks ago,” the king said. “But no one would invite me in except the Widow. And while everyone was concerned about fixing up their houses and their gardens, the Widow cared for the people of this town. A home is not made with paint and nails and wood, but with love and compassion. The Widow therefore has the most beautiful home in Greenfield.” In the weeks that followed, all the villagers worked to make her house the most beautiful as well. The king’s reward was to teach the people to love their neighbor.

We often want things to make our houses and our lives nicer, but what truly makes our homes and our lives rich is love. And that is what Christmas is all about. On Christmas morning God came to us in Jesus to show us his love and to make this world his home. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

The news this past week has been filled with the tax reform bill. One cartoon almost depicted the debate over the bill perfectly. The caption reads, “Tax cuts explained.” An elephant, representing the Republicans, stands on one side holding out a stack of money and says, “You get to keep more of your money.”  On the other side Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, is jumping up and down shouting “This is Armageddon!!!,” while wearing a sign which says, “The end is near.”[1]

What is it that we look to for hope? The Republicans claim that their tax bill will stimulate the economy, produce more jobs, and thus lead to more and more growth and prosperity. The Democrats, on the other hand, say the opposite. They argue that the bill will increase the gap between the rich and poor, that the economic stimulus will be minimal, and that the bill will increase the national debt. Whichever side of the debate you agree with, the issue demonstrates that we place much of our hope in the Economy and in Politics. We believe that power, wielded through the Economy, Politics, as well as through Education, Technology and the Military, is the answer to our ills.

In Psalm 89 the psalmist raises a lament to God for the fall of Israel’s Dynasty. Let me suggest that the psalm is also a critique of human powers.  The Psalm begins in verses 1-4 with a declaration of praise to God for the covenant he made with King David. “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever, with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” Why? Verse 3, “You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, “I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.”’”

The bulk of the psalm sets up the King as God’s regent, the one who reigns in his place. In the next three stanzas, verses 5-8, 9-13, and 14-18, the psalmist praises God first for his reign in and over the heavens, second over the creation, and third, over God’s people. In the next stanza, 19-29, the psalmist recognizes that God anointed the King to reign for God, not in the heavens, but in the other two realms, within the creation and over the nations. So far the psalm is a psalm of praise for how God’s power comes to expression through his anointed, through the power of the King.

In the next stanza, 30-37, the psalmist begins to turn towards the lament in 38 that ends the psalm. He remembers that God’s covenant with David is somewhat conditional. “If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes,” he begins. There are consequences for the King’s trust in foreign powers, for idolatry, and for injustice. And so the Psalmist cries out in lament in 38, “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.” In verse 40 we return to our sermon themes of reality and grief. “You have broken through all his walls and reduced his strongholds to ruins.” Jerusalem lies in ruins, and, in verse 46, God no longer dwells with his people, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, lament and confession clear the way for hope. Facing reality and expressing grief enables us to place our hope in the place where hope can be found. But where is the hope in this psalm? Most lament psalms end with an assurance of salvation and a call to praise. Verse 52 is a doxology, “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.” But this is the ending to Book III of the Psalms. It is not part of Psalm 89 itself. And there is no reason given to praise God. There is no assurance of salvation, not even a call to come and save. Just a “How long will your anger burn?” and a “Remember how your servant has been mocked.” The psalm itself simply ends with how the enemies of God’s people have mocked God’s anointed one, that is, the Messiah, in Hebrew, the Christ, in Greek.

Psalm 89 ends a chapter. The psalmist suggests that we must turn the page. We must look elsewhere for hope. We can no longer hope in humanity. It has failed. And so Psalm 90 begins, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In contrast, the psalmist says in verse 3, “You turn men back to dust saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” While God may have worked through his anointed one in Psalm 89, while God may have chosen a king and a dynasty for Israel, Israel’s true hope, Israel’s true dwelling place has always been God himself.

Now the first chapter of the Gospel of John might be the perfect text to bring this sermon to conclusion: “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” But Luke’s version of events addresses the concerns of Psalm 89 more directly. God hears the cry of the psalmist, but God waits. It is years and centuries later. Judah has returned to Jerusalem, but the people remain subjects of pagan kings - first the Persians, then the Syrians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. The world powers seem to roll over Israel every hundred years or so. And still there is no anointed one, no Messiah, no King in Jerusalem. The question must be raised, “Is God still with us?” “Is God still Israel’s dwelling place?”

But then the angel Gabriel appears to a young woman in Nazareth. Gabriel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever, his kingdom will never end.” The psalmist was indeed correct. God did make an everlasting covenant with David. But the psalmist was also incorrect. God has remained faithful to his covenant. He has not abandoned his promise. God will restore the throne to one of David’s descendants. But this time things are going to be different.

When Mary wonders how this all will be, the angel Gabriel answers in verse 35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (35). While God anointed King David to some degree with his Holy Spirit, Luke makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is in and with this child of Mary’s in a new and fuller way than with anyone before.

Some scholars suggest that Luke’s two books, the Gospel and the book of Acts, should really be entitled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit in Jesus,” and “The Acts of the Holy Spirit in the Apostles.” At every turn in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is being moved, guided, empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. While the Gospel of John teaches us that the Word of God, who existed from eternity and created the world, became flesh and dwelled with us in Jesus. The Gospel of Luke teaches us that the Spirit of God is in Jesus so that God dwells with us in with us in Jesus from below. Let me explain.

Luke situates his story in terms of the powers that be. In 1:5 he sets the stage by saying, “In the time of Herod the King,” and in 2:1 he mentions that the Emperor at the time is Caesar Augustus and that Quirinius was governor in Syria. He reminds us of all those in power. They are the ones with their hands on the Economy, and Technology, and the Military. They are the ones we humans look to for hope.

In contrast, the one who comes to save God’s people and to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles is born to an unknown virgin. And he is not born in the halls of power in Rome or Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem. He is not born with great fanfare and royal messengers proclaiming his birth across the kingdom, but by a heavenly host announcing his birth to poor shepherds on a lonely hill.

For years this Holy One, the Son of God, lives in obscurity, living and working as just one of us, until one day he begins to preach the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But the people did not recognize him. Although he healed the sick, released the blind from their darkness, and even raised the dead from their imprisonment, people wondered, “Is this Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the King.” They did not recognize him because he did not use the tools of human power, but the power of God which is love. He did not command the Economy, or a great Military. He did not enmesh himself in Politics, although everything he did and said was political. He was God’s Messiah, and he was God dwelling with us, but not from above, but from below with love.

In the end the powers that be conspired against him to end the threat against them. They crucified him and hung a sign over him reading, “The King of the Jews.” Those standing by and even one of the criminals hanging on a cross next to him mocked him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself and us!” The words of the psalmist must have rung through Jesus’ ears, “Remember, Lord, how your servant has been mocked, … the taunts with which your enemies … have mocked every step of your anointed one” (89:51).


I think the question asked by those around the cross has rung out down the centuries and is still asked today: Why didn’t Jesus just come down from the cross? Why didn’t he set himself up as the King of Israel like his father, David? If he came down from the cross everyone would be in such awe of him all power would have been his. Why didn’t just come down from the cross and set all things political and economic and technological right? And why, for that matter, has God waited so long to do so. If God is almighty, ruler over all nations and the whole creation as the psalmist proclaims, why doesn’t he just snap his fingers and set all things right?

In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the protagonist, Jayber, asks this very question. Jayber muses:

I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment he did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own soul would have to believe in Him then. From that moment on the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.[2]

In Jesus God gave Israel and all the nations their King, their Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. But he came to us not as the kings of this world. He was not surrounded by pomp and circumstance, wielding the powers of the Economy and Politics. He came to us from below, from among the poor and oppressed. He came healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned, waking the dead, forgiving the sinner, welcoming the stranger, loving even the oppressor. He came wielding the power of love. He leads us into love for him and his Father, and into loving one another and the creation. He came so that we could refashion even the powers of this world, the Economy and Politics, by the power of love. He came to us wielding love so that God could make his home with us. And that, my friends, is our hope. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Good and gracious God, in Jesus you gave us our Messiah, our King, the Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Draw us into the mystery of your love so that we might be instruments of your power, giving hope to those in darkness and drawing all toward your grace and mercy and peace. Amen.

[1] Nate Beeler, “Tax Cuts,” The Columbus Dispatch (12/13/17).

[2] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 295

December 17, 2017 Reality, Grief, Hope
(Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Many, many years ago God gave some instructions to a prophet named Isaiah. He said, “Comfort, comfort my people. … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:1). Now when you hear the word “comfort,” what do you think of? Do you think of being comfortable? Like maybe sitting in a comfy chair? Maybe God was telling Isaiah to make Israel comfortable. Like when your parents have guests come over, they will get them a cool drink of water if it is hot out, or maybe offer a cup of tea if it is could outside. Then they will lead them to the cushiest chair in the house and have them sit down. Is that what God wants Isaiah to do, to make his people comfortable?

Or maybe when you hear the word comfort you think of a time when you were sick. Maybe your mom came to you and put a cool cloth on your forehead. Maybe she gave you some medicine so you would feel better. Or maybe you think of story time before you go to bed. You cuddle up with your mom or dad on the couch as they read you a story.  Is that the kind of comfort God wants Isaiah to bring to his people?

Sometimes we think we can find comfort in things. And that is especially so during Christmas time when we try to think of all the presents we want for Christmas. We think if we just had this toy or that toy, we would feel good. Or maybe we want this blanket or that piece of clothing. Sometimes we believe that things will bring us comfort. And they do, but only for a bit. The kind of comfort things bring us doesn’t last long. We soon grow tired of our new outfit or we break our new toy.

But the kinds of comfort we receive from people lasts and lasts because that kind of comfort comes from love. God said to Isaiah the prophet, “Comfort, comfort my people. … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her… that her sin has been paid for.” God’s message through Isaiah was that he had forgiven his people. His message was that he loved them even though they had sinned. And that is the message God says to us in Jesus. He sent Jesus us to us to give us comfort, because through Jesus God forgives us of our sins. Now that is comfort that lasts forever. [End]

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And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Over the last couple of months we have seen over and over again how rarely people repent. It has been sadly interesting to watch how numerous men have responded to accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. They often seem to follow a pattern. After the first allegations the man will say that there was some form of miscommunication, that he did not intend his actions to be taken in such a fashion, or that the other party simply does not remember how some interaction actually went. But then as more and more women make more accusations of worse and worse conduct, the man will totally deny any wrong doing and even any interaction with the accused women. Roy Moore, for instance, changed his story from saying that everything that happened between his accusers and himself was consensual to completely denying that he even knew his accusers.

We have a great fear of repentance. I suppose we don’t like to repent because we then have to admit we were wrong, or in the wrong. We have to admit some level of moral failure. But I wonder if morality is really the motivating factor here. At a deeper level, I believe that people are afraid of simply admitting failure of any kind. To admit you were wrong or in the wrong is to admit to a weakness. Repentance and seeking forgiveness places you in someone else’s debt. It places you in a position of dependence upon another. It places you in a position in which you are at the mercy of another. If you repent you leave yourself open to the possibility that the accused will not forgive, but will demand a just punishment. And in a society that values the individual above all else, such dependence upon another is seen as weakness.

We see this reluctance to repent at an individual level. We all are loath to admit our wrongdoing and expose ourselves to others. But we also see this aversion to repentance at a national level. Next week President Trump will release a document detailing his national security strategy. Previews of the document indicate that while several of Trumps priorities were shared with previous administrations, such as protecting American interests abroad, sustaining international peace, and protecting the United States, Trump’s strategy differs in its approach. Previous administrations recognized the need for cooperation with other nations. Trump’s strategy views the international scene as inherently competitive and places the United States in conflict and competition with both its enemies and its allies.[i]

While some may see this as a stark contrast to previous administrations, it seems to me more of an intensification of what has always been latent in American foreign policy. As the leader of the free world in the view of previous administrations, and now as an independent actor within the world, the United States must never appear to be in the wrong. To admit wrongdoing on the international stage is to become beholden to other nation states. It is to be weak. And whether we are cooperating with other nations as the leading, most powerful nation, or whether we are competing against all other nations, the United State cannot afford to appear weak. Perception of power on the international stage, you see, is power. Repentance therefore is never an option.

A refusal to repent, however, leads to a denial of reality. Two weeks ago we looked at the first and part of the second prophetic tasks of the church, according to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.[ii] The first task is to name reality. The people of Israel cloaked themselves with the belief that they were God’s chosen nation. They presumed upon God’s blessing and protection. They refused to repent of their idol worship, placing their trust in foreign powers, and their oppression of the poor. And so even when they had been sent into exile, it was up to the prophet to point to the reality of the situation – Jerusalem was overrun, the temple was destroyed, and God’s presence had departed from them.

I suggested that many Christians in the United States have been living in denial as the influence of the church and Christianity has waned in our culture. The culture wars, debates about prayer in school, putting the 10 Commandments up in public places, and so on are evidence that some people are trying to hold on to a past in which they believe the United States was in some sense more of a Christian nation. Of course this denial is a denial on many levels. Those who fight this war often deny the presence of secular and humanistic forces that helped shape this country. Many of the founding Fathers, for instance, were Deists, not Christians. They also deny the depth of past sins. Roy Moore, for instance, when asked when America was a great nation responded, ““I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.” So America was greatest when it committed its greatest sin?

The first prophetic task, holding up reality, leads to the second prophetic task, calling people to grief. Two weeks ago we looked at the first half of the second task, calling people to lament. In lamentation we lift up the truth of our situation so that we can express our sorrow over it to God. We express our sorrow for the injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and brutality we see in the world. We ache with and for the oppressed. And we express our sorrow for the ways in which we may be caught up in such situations. Maybe we lament for we are the oppressed. Maybe we lament because we feel helpless before incomprehensible social, economic, political and ecological systems. What can we do to address climbing temperatures or the crisis of the Rohingyan refugees?

Lamentation begins, therefore, to turn us away from ourselves and towards others. Lamentation turns us to have compassion on others, and it turns us to look to God for the solution. Lamentation enables us to admit our own frailty and weakness for we realize that the problems facing our world and our own individual lives are too intractable for us to solve ourselves. Lamentation places us in need before God.

Repentance, the second half of the prophetic task of grief, carries this move towards others further. When we not only face the reality of our situation, but also the reality that we are, in some ways, culpable for the situation we are in, if in deed we have done wrong, then we place ourselves in need of compassion from others. To repent is to recognize and admit the reality of our wrongdoing, to seek forgiveness from the person or persons we have wronged, and finally to commit to a new way of behaving. In social terms, to repent is to admit that we have broken community with another person and to enjoin them to restore community through forgiveness.

I wonder if we find repentance so difficult in our culture because repentance is a denial of our dearly held belief in individualism. Repentance forces us to admit that we all do live in community, that we need others and that others need us. Repentance forces us to admit the reality that no man is an island. Repentance in our culture is difficult because it forces us to admit an apparent weakness, dependence on others.

The prophetic call to repentance, however, comes through the words of Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sin” (40:1-2). The Hebrew word for comfort means to console, to ease someone’s sorrow. The root word, interestingly, can not only mean to comfort, to show compassion and sorrow for another, but also to repent, to feel sorry for one’s own actions. In the Hebrew mindset, to comfort another and to repent are to enjoin others in true community. In comforting others we share in their sorrow. In repentance we also share in another’s sorrow for we feel sorrow for having caused their sorrow.

Contrary to our own individualistic culture, however, such sharing in community, such dependence upon others, is not a weakness. It is the very strength of being human. The English word comfort helps us understand this. Comfort comes from the Latin con plus fortis, which means strength. To comfort means to strengthen another. To be enjoined in community, to be dependent on others is not a weakness, but necessary for strength.

Ultimately, however, our true strength as humans comes not from our communion with other humans, but from our communion with God. The prophetic task of calling people to grief, of calling people to lamentation and repentance is the prophetic task of calling them to a deeper dependence upon God. It is therefore only when we become weak and vulnerable, that we find true strength and comfort. It is only when we admit with the prophet Isaiah that “all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field…. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever,” that we find our true glory. It is only when we admit our failure and confess our sins, it is only when we place ourselves at the mercy of God, that we become truly strong. For it is only as we receive the love, mercy and grace of God, it is only as we are rejoined in communion with God, that we are enabled to achieve our true potential as those made in the image of God.

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. …. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Ultimately the weakness and vulnerability of repentance is stronger than the refusal to repent, the denial of reality, for repentance before God leads to forgiveness and communion with God through the Holy Spirit. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence] Lord God, you sent your prophet John to prepare the way for the birth of our savior, your son, Jesus Christ. Lead us into repentance that our hearts may prepare him room. Amen. 

[i] See Matthew Lee, “Paper shows how Trump views world,”  The News Gazette, December 15, 2017, pg. A3; and David Frum, “A National-Security Strategy Devoid of Values,” The Atlantic, December 12, 2017,

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

December 10, 2017 Give Us Peace
(Isaiah 11: 1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

On Wednesday President Trump announced that the United States would be moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since Israel counts Jerusalem as its capital. All other nations, however, along with the United States until now, have refrained from putting their embassies in Jerusalem because the Palestinians also claim Jerusalem to be their capital. President Trump’s announcement has been met with violent protests throughout Palestine and across the Middle East form Turkey to Pakistan. Mitri Raheb, Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, commented the other day on Trump’s announcement, saying:

The Christmas story starts with an imperial decree signed by Caesar Augustus. As I was watching President Trump’s address yesterday evening on our TV, I could not help but think of the so-called Balfour Declaration signed 100 years ago when the British empire promised Palestine to the European Jews as their national homeland. Trump’s address yesterday was indeed another such imperial decree recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Again and again we, the Palestinian people, are sacrificed at the altar for imperial politics.[i]

We have made the Christmas story to be a story of serenity and calm and peace. We sing “Silent night, Holy night, all is calm and all is bright.” But we ought not to forget the harsh background to the story. In Luke’s version the story of the birth of Jesus begins with Caesar Augustus ordering all the people in Israel to return to the home towns to be counted in a census. The Emperor didn’t just want to know how many people lived in Israel, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t getting shorted on the taxes Rome collected from Israel. The Christmas story begins with a reminder that the people of Israel lived under the occupation of Rome, in de facto exile in their own land.

Perhaps you know how the story continues. Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem which is just outside of Jerusalem when Mary is nine months pregnant. The town is so crowded the only place they can find to stay is in the place where people keep their animals at night. And there Mary has her baby and she lays him in a manger. Again, not so much a story of calm and serenity, but of hardship and poverty.

Meanwhile, out in the fields some shepherds are watching their sheep when an angel appears to them and tells them that the heir of King David, the Christ, the Savior, has been born in Bethlehem. A host of angels appears and praises God singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” So the story is indeed a story about peace, but what kind of peace? Is it just about inner calm and tranquility, or about a King who establishes peace through justice and mercy?

Seven years ago Roxann and I stood in the Shepherd’s Field just outside Bethlehem where many believe the angels appeared to the shepherds. We looked out across the valley upon an illegal Israeli settlement - a huge neighborhood filled with apartment complexes built for Israelis in Palestinian territory. If you look closely you can see the beginning construction of the infamous security wall which is effectively sealing off Palestinian land from the Palestinians.

I bring up all this about Jerusalem and Israel and Palestine simply to say that the story begun by Caesar August’s decree continues on today. The story of Jesus’ birth is not just a story that happened 2,000 years ago. It is the story of God entering into the human story and so it extends to today and into the future, and it is a story that begins not with Caesar’s decree, but with God’s decree, “Let there be light.”

The story of God entering into the human story begins with God creating a world in which humans could live and flourish, a world shaped by shalom, the Hebrew world for peace, in which he blessed us saying, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:28). God’s intention was to make a world in which he dwelled with us. But the story continues as we heard in the first lesson this morning with humanity seeking to be gods themselves. Humans turned God’s blessing into a curse. Instead of life and fruitfulness in community with God, humanity turned away from God and found barrenness, painful toil, and death. Breaking our relationship with God we cursed our relationships with one another and with the creation.

The story of Christmas is the climax of the story of God entering into the human story by becoming one of us. A child, an infant, needy, defenseless and dependent on the love and care of a father and mother as we all once were. It is the climax of the story that took a turn when God promised to be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants, to give him a land and make him into a great nation, a promise to turn the curse back into blessing. And so it is the climax of a story about peace, about shalom.

The story continued as Israel tried to live by God’s ways, but mostly failed. For many long years the prophets of Israel looked ahead to that day when God’s shalom and blessing would be restored. They looked ahead to that day when God’s chosen Messiah would reign on David’s throne, “establishing it with justice and righteousness,” as Isaiah says in chapter 9.  It is a peace that restores the brokenness and injustice and poverty and pain and toil brought about by the curse of sin. It is a peace that comes only through the forgiveness of sin and true reconciliation between God and humanity which spills over into reconciliation between human beings and between humanity and the creation.

In the hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” all the nations are called to “join the triumph of the skies; with the angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”  The peace this child comes to bring is comprehensive. The stars herald his coming and draw magi, pagan astrologers, from the east. His peace thus calls us to overcome the racial, ethnic and even national divisions that continue to curse the world today.

In the hymn, “Joy to the World,” we sing, “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.” The prophet Isaiah can only depict the peace the Messiah will bring with fantastic images like a wolf living with a lamb and a child playing gleefully with a cobra. In other prophecies the deserts bloom, the mountains are laid low and the rough places made plain. I am not sure what the attraction is to having the whole earth look like Illinois, but the point is that humanity will even be reconciled with the creation.

So as we read through the rest of the story, listen for the ways the birth of Jesus is as the angels say, “Good tidings of great joy” that will mean “on earth peace to men on whom [God’s] favor rests.” Listen for the forgiveness of sin. Listen to how the news is brought to and through the poor and outcast. Listen to how the nations respond. And imagine yourself entering into the story, for the story of God becoming human in the infant Jesus is not ultimately about God entering our story, it is about God paving the way for us to re-enter God’s story. For the Word that became flesh was in the beginning and all things were made through him and for him. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


December 3, 2017 Reality, Grief, Hope
(Isaiah 64; Psalm 80) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you know what special Sunday today is? It’s the first week of Advent. And do you know what Advent is? It is the four weeks before Christmas. Advent is a special time when we wait to celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus.

Do you like waiting? Waiting can be kind of hard, especially waiting for Christmas. What kinds of things do you have to wait for?  Waiting can be hard because we often don’t do much while we wait. But we often wait while other people are doing things. We wait for Christmas while our parents are preparing for Christmas. They are making cookies, putting up decorations, writing Christmas cards, buying presents. We may not do much while we wait for dinner, but mom or dad is working hard making dinner. We wait to go to school, our parents are making lunches, getting us breakfast, and getting ready for the day. So when we wait, other people are often working hard.

And that is what Advent is about. You see Advent is not only a time in which we wait to celebrate Christmas, the first time Jesus came to us. It is also a time when we wait for Jesus to return again. And while we wait, God is working. While we wait, God is working in the church, in us, to help us tell others about Jesus. While we wait the Spirit of God is working in people’s hearts so that they may believe in Jesus. While we wait God is at work in our own hearts, preparing us to live in God’s kingdom when Jesus returns. So as we wait to celebrate Christmas over the next four Sundays, remember that God is working while we wait.  [end]

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Advent is finally here. It is many people’s favorite time of year. And what is there not to like? Cheerful music; colorful decorations, cookies, classic TV specials, and peppermint ice cream is finally in the store again. And now that Advent has arrived, it is spiritually healthy to start getting in the mood for Christmas. But is a month long of sappy Christmas songs truly healthy for our souls. Does singing along to the song “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” really put us in the proper mood for Advent? “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light, From now on your troubles will be out of sight.” Of course Target and Amazon would love us to put aside the troubles of the world by simply buying more decorations and presents and Christmassy stuff in order to make our hearts be light?

How do we truly celebrate Christmas? How do we as Christians avoid the materialism and consumerism so rampant in our society at this time of year? If you think about what we celebrate at Christmas, it is truly mindboggling. The God of all creation, the one who made the billions of galaxies with trillions of stars and planets, a universe so huge our human minds can hardly grasp, this God took on the flesh of a helpless, defenseless infant. This God became dependent upon a teenaged girl from Nazareth. And this God did this because there was something horribly wrong with the world. He did this to somehow make what was wrong with this world right again.

If we truly want to escape the commercialism and materialism of our culture, if we truly want to celebrate Christmas, then we must observe Advent. And Advent is a time to be prophetic. The common lectionary helps us in this. During Advent the lectionary texts feature the prophets. But not just the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, but the New Testament Prophets like John the Baptist, Zechariah the Priest, and the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps the call to be prophetic sounds daunting to you. “I can’t predict the future,” you might be thinking. But prophecy, as I have said before, is about much more than just predicting the future. My sermon series this Advent season was inspired by a book by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann called Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.[i] Our task as Christian prophets is to raise up the reality in which we live, to lead and call people in grief through lament and repentance, which all lays the groundwork for us to speak a true word of hope. This morning we will focus on the prophetic task of giving the world a reality check, but we will touch upon grief and hope as well.

If we celebrate that Jesus became incarnate on Christmas in order to save the world, the reality we must live in is that the world must be in need of saving. The reality we must face is that the world is broken. And this is what the prophet Isaiah does in our text this morning. The reality of the situation is that Jerusalem and the cities of Judah are destroyed. They have become a wasteland. The temple lies in ruins and has been “burned with fire.” The reality is that God has left the building. God has abandoned his temple. His presence has left his people because, and this is the deeper reality, God’s people turned away from Him. In verse 5 Isaiah says,

[W]hen we continued to sin against [your ways] you were angry. … All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. … No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.

The prophetic task of stating and pointing the world to reality is to break down the false sense of security that we erect to dull ourselves to the brokenness of the world. It is to break through the consumerism and materialism of our day to remind everyone that the brokenness of the world won’t go away if we just hum Christmas carols for a month while we fill our shopping carts, virtual or real. And so Isaiah breaks through the false security of the Israelites in chapter 1 by calling out the religious elites for their false worship.

‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ Says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. … [Why?] Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, please the case of the widow.’

In his book, Brueggemann argues that the elites of Judah, the rich, political and religious leaders, relied upon the belief that Israel was God’s chosen nation. They were God’s people. They could count on God to protect them against their enemies. They were special because God was with them. They relied on this so much that they forgot their covenant responsibilities of maintaining justice, of caring for the poor, and upholding the cause of the oppressed. Worse, while they banked on the belief that they were God’s chosen people, they themselves oppressed the poor. They cheated the widows and took advantage of the sojourners in the land. God hated their worship so much because they praised God with their lips, but cheated their neighbor with their deeds. But they covered over this reality by relying on a false sense of security, banking on the idea that they were God’s chosen people. But Isaiah lifts up the reality that Jerusalem is a wasteland, and the temple lies in ruins.

The first prophetic task of the church, therefore, is to raise up the reality of our situation. Of course the easy reality to point out is the brokenness of our culture and society. We can easily point out the racism and sexism so rampant and pervasive in our society. We can easily point out the vacuous and destructive sexual ethics of our society. We can easily lift up the poverty of our inner cities and the growing poverty in our small towns. What is more difficult, however, is to lift up the reality of the church itself.

The reality of the state of the Church in the United States today is that the Church is no longer the influential institution it once was. A lot of Christians are making a lot of noise about the US being a Christian nation. They are fighting against the incoming tide of secularism. They argue for prayer in schools, that the 10 commandments be put on display in court houses, and for laws that allow for discrimination against homosexuals. It seems to me these fights are about an attempt to preserve some semblance that the US remains a Christian nation. But the reality is that Christianity no longer carries the weight it once did. Christendom is dead.

Once we face the reality of the situation, we are lead to the second prophetic task: grief. And the first part of the prophetic task of grief is to lament. To lament is to basically name reality, to allow ourselves to feel sorrow for that reality, but also to admit that the problems we face are beyond our solving. Racism, sexism, poverty and oppression, these will only be truly solved by the power of the Almighty. The decline of the influence of the church, this is something that God must handle. Lament is sort of an active form of waiting. We express our grief over the situation, but acknowledge that there is someone who can bring about real change. But what ought we to lament?

I think there are two reasons we ought to lament the decline of Christianity within our society. On the one hand the Democratic institutions and ideals of the United States owe much to Christian practices and Christian morality. The inherent dignity of each individual person which lies at the center of our ideals comes not from pagan religion or secular humanism, but from the Judeo-Christian belief that all humans are made in the image of God. Moreover, Christians throughout the history of the United States have played decisive roles in the social and political reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries – abolition, workers’ rights, children’s rights, the women’s suffrage movement, universal public education, and temperance – Christians were at the forefront of all of these movements. So on the one hand Christianity and the Church has in the past played a decisive role in the shaping of U.S. society, much for the good. And so in many ways the decline of the influence of the church is to be lamented.

But on the other hand, the Christian church in the United States has wedded itself to a notion of “American exceptionalism.” Many have come to see the US as a Christian nation that has been chosen by God and given a particular task to play in the world. As if the U.S. and not the Church has become the New Israel. In doing so, however, the church has sold out to many aspects of our culture. The church has been and can be as materialistic, individualistic, consumer driven, and market shaped as the rest of our society. Sometimes it is hard to tell if the church is the church of Christ or the Mall of America, or the local Elks Lodge, or just another social service agency. But worse, sometimes Christians have backed racist policies such as slavery and segregation. They have supported the increased militarization of the nation. And they have blessed the imperialism embedded in our foreign policies, while justifying these policies with the notion that such policies of the United States actually further the Kingdom of God. From a prophetic perspective there is much to lament in the decline of Christianity that we ought to have sorrow for, but not for its passing, but rather for it having existed in the first place.

The first prophetic task of the church is to name the reality of our situation. This then enables us to lament the loss of the church’s influence in society, but also to express sorrow for the ways in which the church abused its influence and succumbed to some of the idolatrous aspects of our society. Facing reality and voicing our lament, however, enable us to step back and open up space for hope. Facing reality and voicing lament helps us to realize that the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of the church are beyond our ability to fix. We are moved to place our hope in God.

Psalm 80, which we will read in a moment, is a psalm of lament, but laments often make this same turn from sorrow to hope. Thus Psalm 80 lifts up reality, but ends in calling the people to hope in God’s Messiah.  “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name” (16-18).

Friends, during this Advent season, let us not turn away from reality by filling ourselves with shallow “Holiday Spirit,” but let us insist on looking at reality and grieving over our reality so that we may turn to God and Jesus Christ in hope. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Restore us, O Shepherd of Israel; Make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014).

November 26, 2017 The Son of Man
(Matthew 25:31-46) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there were a sister and a brother who were total opposites. Sister was very neat and clean. When you walked into her room everything was put away in its place. Brother, however, was messy. You could hardly even walk through his room it was so messy. And he would only clean his room if his parents made him. But when it came to vegetables, Brother loved to eat his vegetables: broccoli, beans and beets. It didn’t matter he ate them all. But Sister would only eat her vegetables if her parents made her.

Well it was like that with everything. Brother loved to play the piano; Sister only practiced when she had to. Sister loved to do her math homework; Brother only did it because he had to. Aren’t we all like that? There are some things we do because of who we are. We do them because we love doing them. And there are some things we only do because we might get a reward if we do or punished if we don’t.

Jesus once said that when he comes back, all the nations will be brought before him and he will separate people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep to his right and say to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” But the sheep will say, “When did we see you thirsty or hungry?” And Jesus will say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

So the sheep helped people who were thirst and hungry just because that is the kind of people they were. They didn’t know that by helping the poor they were helping Jesus. They didn’t know they would be rewarded for helping the poor. They just did it because they were kind and loving people. They did it because they were like Jesus, for Jesus left his place in heaven and was born a human being, he died on the cross, and was raised from the dead, all to save us. And he did it all because that is the kind of person he is. He did it because he is loving and kind. And you know what is good news? If we continue to follow Jesus, he will give us his Spirit who will make us into people like him, people who do kind and loving things because we are kind and loving people. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

On Monday, November 20, a group of over 300 Christian religious professionals, including some from such Evangelical institutions as Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, attending the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature annual conference signed the Boston Declaration. The declaration basically states that this is a time when we as Christians must make a public stand against several public evils such as xenophobia, racism, sexism, and an economic system that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. It calls to task those who claim to be Christians but fail to do so. The declaration reads;

This is a time of heightened racist and patriarchal empire where wealth is concentrated at the top. The Living God asks us to make a decision: "Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil. ...Choose life." (Deuteronomy 30).  Following Jesus today means choosing life, joining the Spirit-led struggle to fight the death-dealing powers of sin wherever they erupt. Whenever one of God’s children is being oppressed, we will fight with them for liberation with the power of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit. And yet, we live in a moment when death and evil seem to reign supreme in the United States, when those with the power of a uniform or the president’s pen or a position of authority or fame or economic tricks of capitalization and interest or sheer brute force… again and again choose death rather than life. In a moment when too many who confess Christ advocate evil, we believe followers of the Jesus Way are called to renounce, denounce, and resist these death-dealing powers which organize and oppress our world, not to embrace or promulgate them.[1]

Now I have read through the Boston Declaration, and I encourage you to do so. I haven’t read it close enough to know if I agree with every jot and tittle of it. I know I would alter some of its phrasing and make its acclamations clearer of who Jesus is. But I believe our text this morning calls us to make such a stand. Too many of those who claim to be Christians are justifying public policies and the actions of individuals that are misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, and generally oppressive of the poor. As those who follow Christ Jesus we must truly follow in the ways he walked and the ways he talked.

It would be easy to read our gospel text this morning and simply say, “Yes, it is clear. A Christian is someone who feeds the poor, clothes the naked, visits those in prison, and stands on the side of the oppressed.” It looks as though Jesus were teaching that what really matters is what we do. Do we welcome refugees? Then we are in. Do we send books to prisoners? Then we are in. One might conclude that Jesus is teaching that we save ourselves by the good works that we do. But it is not that simple and what this story reveals is much more profound.

Last week I noted that this parable along with the preceding parables challenges one of our most deeply cherished doctrinal statements, that we are save by grace alone through faith and not by works. This passage seems to suggest that we should toss Paul out, who teaches salvation by grace through faith so clearly, for Jesus certainly takes priority over Paul, doesn’t he? But last week I also argued that this whole series of parables doesn’t necessarily teach that we are saved by our works. Rather than highlighting what people do and don’t do, each parable turns on the attitudes people have which lead to their different actions. So too in our passage today.

Jesus’ story emphasizes not so much what the sheep and the goats do and don’t do, but the fact that each of them is surprised by the King’s ruling. The sheep are surprised to find out that in serving the poor and the oppressed they were serving the king. The goats are surprised to find out that in turning away the poor and oppressed they were turning away the king. The attitude revealed by the goats is that they would have helped the poor and the oppressed if they had only known that they would have been helping the king. “Hey,” you can hear them saying, “this isn’t fair. You can’t condemn us for not doing something we didn’t know we weren’t doing.” The attitude revealed by the sheep, however, is that they simply helped those who were poor and oppressed because they were poor and oppressed. They helped them because the sheep were righteous and that is what righteous people do. The attitudes of the sheep and the goats reveal their status of either righteous or unrighteous through the actions that they take.

Yet there is another reason why we shouldn’t think that Jesus is teaching that we are saved by our works. I have called this a parable, but some scholars doubt whether it is a true parable or not. On the one hand it doesn’t look like a parable but more like a prophetic announcement. Jesus depicts himself as one who will be given authority to judge all the nations and all individuals in each nation. This is a prophetic announcement of coming judgement. We should therefore remember the point of prophetic announcements is not to merely predict the future, but rather to depict possible futures as a warning or an encouragement. Prophets hold up the behavior, or misbehavior, of a group along with a certain possible future in order to say, “Look, this is what is going to happen if you do this or that.” The point of prophecy is not to predict the future, but to urge some to repent if they need to repent and to urge all to act in righteousness and justice. The point is to warn the goats and to encourage the sheep.

On the other hand this teaching does look something like a parable. First, it has characters who are caricatures. The sheep are a caricature, a generic picture, of those who are righteous. The goats are a caricature of those who are unrighteous. And second, it has a comparative twist which serves as the punchline of the story as do many parables. The sheep don’t realize that they were serving the king when they helped the poor and the oppressed. The goats don’t realize that they were not helping the king. Like many parables this story makes a comparison in order to make its point.

All of this is to say that this is not Jesus’ theological treatise on how we are saved. His point is not to lay out the means and why’s and wherefores of soteriology, that is the teaching of how we are saved. If we take this as a treatise on how we are saved, then we have to take the previous 3 parables in the same way. But then we get four different ways in which people are saved or condemned. Which is it? Do we need to feed the poor to be saved, or invest the talents God gives us, or bring enough oil along for the night? But rather than being commentary on the means of our salvation, our story this morning and each of the three preceding parables holds up different characteristics of those who are righteous and those who are not. Each story holds up a different perspective of what it looks like to be righteous or unrighteous. Jesus’ point in this story is prophetic, part warning and part encouragement, through the medium of a parabolic twist – you thought you were doing just fine, but are you really? If you think you right with God, but fail to have compassion on the poor, then you have another thing coming. For when you turn the poor away, you turn away the Son of Man.

And that brings me to my next point for there is another twist in the parable. Jesus is the Son of Man who is the King of all nations. Jesus begins this story saying:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

As is his practice, Jesus refers to himself with the somewhat curious title, “The Son of Man.” Here this is an obvious reference to the book of Daniel in which the Son of Man is a human figure who is dressed in heavenly garb. Daniel sees a vision of the Son of Man approaching God on the clouds and being given authority to rule over all the nations. Jesus reveals that he will fulfill this vision Daniel has of the Son of Man. He is the Son of Man who is enthroned as King over all the nations.

The title “Son of Man” is curious, however, because it is only used twice in Daniel. It generally has a more basic meaning throughout the Old Testament where it simply means a human being. Son of man is literally son of Adam. It can mean the son of the person Adam, a human being, or humanity in general. So when Jesus refers to himself throughout his ministry as the Son of Man, it is not obvious to his disciples or those around him that he is connecting himself to this mysterious figure in Daniel, except in stories such as this one.

In the Old Testament the words “son of man” are found most often, 90 percent of the occurrences in fact, in the book of Ezekiel. God addresses the prophet Ezekiel as “son of man” over 90 times. In this way God highlights the fact that Ezekiel is merely human. Again and again God reminds Ezekiel that he is just human. You are a son of man. You are just a human being.  

It seems to me that Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man” in order to point his followers to the “Son of Man” in Daniel, but also to the prophet Ezekiel. Jesus is not only the one who will come before God on the clouds to be enthroned and given authority over all the nations. Jesus is also “just human.” Jesus is not only the Son of God, the Son of David, and the Messiah. He is the Son of Adam, a true human being. He thus identifies with each and every human being, but particularly the least of these. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brother and sisters of mine, you did for me.” “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (40,45).

But it is never biblical to say that someone is just human. There is no merely human person according to the bible. For to be human is to be made in the image of God. the Psalmist asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet (Psalm 8:4-6).

Jesus is the Son of Man who will return in all his glory. He will return when he has been given the throne that was meant for humanity since the creation of the world. He will return as King of the nations and King over the creation. He will be surrounded in glory by all the heavenly host. But he will demonstrate his glory by identifying with the least of these. He will demonstrate his glory by revealing that he represents each and every human being, but particularly the hungry, the thirsty, those who are sick or in prison, those who are naked and without a home. He will demonstrate his glory by being a son of man, by being fully human.

As followers of Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, the Son of Man, let us take up our glory. Let us be faithful image bearers of God. Let us be faithful stewards of the creation and of God’s kingdom. And so let us identify with and seek justice for the least of these. For that is what it means to be a son of man. That is what it means to be truly human. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, open our eyes and our hearts to those who are poor and oppressed so that we may become more like Jesus, more like the humans you made us to be. Amen.


November 12, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
November 5, 2017 The Dividing Line of History
(Matthew 25:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I have a few things in my bag this morning that can help us understand what it might be like to be poor. First, I have an apple. This apple represents the food a person needs every day. Second, I have a band aid. The band aid represents the health care people need to stay healthy. Third, I have a book. The book represents an education.

So if someone has enough money, they can afford all three of these things, and that is really good. But what happens if you are poor and you can only afford one or two of these things? Let’s suppose you are a poor farmer and your crops don’t do well. Then you don’t have enough food [puts the apple in the bag]. But if you don’t have enough food, you get sick easier [puts the band aid in the bag] and it makes it harder to concentrate at school and to learn things [puts the book in the bag]. But let’s say you have enough food and access to a doctor, but you can’t afford an education? Well, then you have trouble getting a good job, and then you find it more difficult to buy enough food and to pay for the doctor. Or let’s say you have food and you can go to school, but you can’t afford the doctor. Well, then when you get sick. You see how it is important to have all three? To live well everyone needs food, health care, and education.

In Psalm 103 the Psalmist says:

Praise the Lord, my soul; / all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, my soul, / and forget not all his benefits—

who forgives all your sins / and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit / and crowns you with love and compassion,

who satisfies your desires with good things / so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness / and justice for all the oppressed.

God cares about our whole selves. He not only wants us to worship him. He cares not only for our souls, but also for our bodies. He heals our diseases. He satisfies our desires with good things. He wants us to have enough food and to have an education so that we can know more about him and his world. And because God cares about our whole selves, we should also care about the whole selves of other people. We should help those who are poor so they can have food, health care, and an education.

So does anyone know what day this is today? It is World Hunger Sunday. And maybe some of you have been reading stories all week about how World Renew helps people have enough food, education, and health care. And maybe some of you have been putting money into a Peter Fish. If so, as you leave for children’s worship, you can bring your Peter Fish up to the table and leave it as an offering to God for the world of World Renew. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning we are recognizing World Hunger Sunday. We will be taking a collection during the offertory for the work of World Renew. For those of you new to Hessel Park, World Renew is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church that works around the world to help people in poverty. They have three main aspects to their work. First, they support community development in poor communities in 30 different countries. They work with local organizations to develop health programs, small income generation programs, literacy programs, and the like. As a church we particularly support Leanne Geisterfer who oversees all the work World Renew is doing throughout Latin America. Second, World Renew provides immediate and medium range responses to natural disasters and human crises. For instance, they are providing help in response to the recent hurricanes and also relief to the Rhohingyan and Syrian refugees. Third, World Renew advocates for justice and peace around issues such as human trafficking, creation care, gender issues, and refugees.

World Renew thus addresses poverty from a holistic perspective. They address both short term and long term causes of poverty, while they also address poverty in terms of it communal, political and social aspects. They work in areas promoting health care, agriculture, education, and income generation. Moreover, their approach is holistic because they also work with churches and Christian organizations that connect all these areas with our relationship to God

I wonder, however, how well World Relief will do with this campaign this year. Over the last few months World Renew has put out special pleas for donations to help with the relief work they are doing after the hurricanes. I wonder if some of us get rather tired working for and thinking about justice all the time. I wonder if we and other donors might be suffering from donor fatigue. Do you ever suffer from volunteer fatigue? There are so many causes and concerns that call for our support. How are we ever to meet all the needs and respond to all the demands for our time, our prayers, and out money?

Well, let’s take a look at this parable that Jesus tells his disciples. Ten bridesmaids are set to go and meet the groom and escort him to the wedding party as was the custom in those days. Five of the bridesmaids are foolish and bring no oil with them, and five are wise and bring extra oil along. They wait and they wait. .But the groom is late in coming. He is so late in coming all ten of the bridesmaids, the foolish and the wise, fall asleep.

Let me suggest that this is akin to our predicament. The groom is late in coming. We must continue to work for justice. We must continue to stand up for the oppressed. We must continue to seek peace in the world because the groom, Jesus, is late in coming. The following parable repeats the same theme. A wealthy man entrusts his property to his servants and goes away on a trip, but he is a long time in coming. In the third parable the true nature of Jesus is revealed. The Son of Man returns as the King in all his glory. God began a work in Jesus Christ. He acclaimed Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, and the King of all creation. But then Jesus ascended into heaven. He reigns, but his authority is not recognized everywhere. Many still live in rebellion against him. Thus we continue to have injustice and oppression here on earth. Jesus is a long time in coming.

So what is the good news in this parable? It seems mostly to be a parable of warning and judgment. Don’t be like those foolish bridesmaids, or else you too will be shut out of the party. The good news, however, is that we, like all ten bridesmaids, have been invited to the party. Foolish or wise, we have all been asked to play a part in the celebration. God has begun a new work in Jesus Christ. Jesus has ascended into heaven and he is a long time in coming, but we have been asked to play a role in what God is doing in Jesus Christ. We have been given a torch.

Second, the good news is that Jesus is coming. Jesus may be a long time in coming, but he is coming. God has begun a new thing in Jesus. He has inaugurated his kingdom through his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the throne. He has gone away for a time. But his has not left us empty handed. He has empowered us with the gift of his Spirit. Paul says the Spirit is like a down payment. It is assurance, a guarantee that Jesus will return. He has also us give us his written word in which he promises to be with us always until he returns again. Though Jesus is a long time in coming, we have been given all these assurances that he will come again and make all things new.

So what is the oil that the wise bridesmaids take with them? What is it that makes the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids? It is generally agreed by biblical scholars that we shouldn’t interpret Jesus’ parables as mere allegories, as if different pieces of the parable stand for different things in our reality. The danger of this is that then you can make the oil out to be whatever you want it to be. You could argue that the oil is just mere faith in Jesus. Or maybe it is being active in evangelism or working for justice. Maybe it is following particular rules that some church tradition finds particularly important. The problem is that there isn’t really anything in the text itself to say whether one interpretation is right or wrong. We are called to do all these things.

The point of the parable, however, is simply that the wise bridesmaids were prepared for the groom’s delay and the foolish were not. To be wise, to have oil for your lamp, is simply to take the long view. It is to expect that Jesus may arrive at any time, but also that he may tarry for much longer. Now we moderns have resources our ancient brothers and sisters did not have. Scientists estimate that the universe is 13.772 billion years old. That means God took his good sweet old time, about 13.7718 billion years, to even getting around to creating human beings. Humans have only been around about 200,000 years. And we have only been civilized for 6,000. It has been 2,000 years since Jesus walked this earth. That is a blink of an eye to God. Jesus may be long in coming from our perspective. But, to paraphrase the wizard Gandalf, God is never late. He is always right on time. We need to take along oil for our lamps and expect Jesus to come in his time.

Wendell Berry, a poet, essayist, and novelist, can help us take the long view of things. He once wrote, “Whatever is foreseen in joy / must be lived out from day to day.”[1] That is, if we truly long for Jesus’ return, if we truly long for his peace and justice, if we truly long for his kingdom, then we must live out his kingdom of peace and justice from day to day. Every day we must learn to simply live for peace and justice.

In his poem called Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Berry describes what I think is the difference between wise and foolish living and waiting. First, a warning to the foolish:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

In other words, live according to our short term, fast-paced, consumeristic, and materialistic culture and you will be a fool. You will be played by the corporations as simply a cog in the wheels of consumption, a machine to which you will one day be sacrificed.

But second, wisdom for the wise:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Practice resurrection.[2]

Friends, you have been invited to the party, to the feast of the Messiah which we will celebrate when Jesus comes again. You have been given a part to play. You have been called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Take along some oil for your torch. Expect Jesus to return tomorrow or in a thousand years. Sow the seeds of education by volunteering at Books to Prisoners. Invest in the next generation by giving to Orphan’s Treasure Box or the Champaign/Urbana Schools Foundation. Sow the seeds of peace and justice. Take joy in the fact that our children and grandchildren will reap the harvest of what we have sown today. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, we thank you for the work you are doing around the world and in our won community through organizations like World Renew that promote justice and help to alleviate poverty. May we long for the joy foreseen in your kingdom by living for peace and justice each and every day. Amen.

[1] Wendell Berry, “Whatever is foreseen in joy,” in Sabbaths (San Fransisco: North Point Press, 1987), 19.

[2] “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

October 29, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
October 22, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
October 15, 2017 Hospitality: Practicing Reconciliation
(Matthew 22:1-14; Isaiah 25:1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] Did you know that many years ago Roxann and I lived in the country of Ecuador? Ecuador is on in South America and we worked with an organization that helped poor villages set up a health programs for their communities. One day we went to visit several villages to speak to the leaders of these community health programs. We arrived in the first village and the leader invited us into her home. Now she was poor as was the whole village. The walls of her house were made of dirt and they had hay or grass for the roof. But inside she had a table with a few chairs and on the stove she had a pot of soup cooking. She invited us to sit down, and before we could say anything she had a bowl of chicken and potato soup sitting before each of us.

Now we all knew that this was her family’s main meal for the day. We knew that she was being very kind and generous in giving us a bowl of her soup. So, what do you think? What would you do in that situation? Would you eat the soup? Even though she was poor, we knew that if we refused to eat the soup, she would be very offended and hurt. She offered us the soup because that is just what her people did. They offered food to guests. We knew that the right thing to do was to eat the soup.

Well, when we were done, we went to the next village and the same thing happened. And then we went to the next village, and the same thing happened again. Each time Roxann kept giving me her potatoes and her chicken. But even though we were full, we knew that to be a good guest we had to eat what was set before us. We knew that we should honor these ladies who were being so kind and generous.

Jesus once said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”  Well the king finally sent his servants out to gather up anyone they could find to fill his banquet hall because those originally invited refused to come. God is inviting all of us into the kingdom as well through Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a good guest. To be a follower of Jesus is to receive what God wants to give us with joy and thankfulness. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

You have been invited to a party. But not just any ordinary party. This bodes to be the biggest and greatest, the most lavish and opulent party you have ever been to. You have been invited to the feast at the end of the age. It will be on the Mountain of the Lord, on Mount Zion, in the New Jerusalem. You have been invited to the feast of the Messiah. How will you respond? Will you accept the invitation?

If you accept the invitation,, when you get there, you will see people streaming in from every land and every tongue and every tribe. As Jesus says, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their place at the feast in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). They will all be dressed in their finest clothes; westerners in business suits, the Japanese in Kimonos, others in saris, flowing dresses, woven skirts.

When you enter, the doorman will take your cloak. As he takes it you noticed that it turns into an old, filthy, heavy rag. You feel the weight of all that you have feared, all the loneliness you have ever felt, your weaknesses and your impotence, you feel the weight of all that bore the stench of death lifted off your shoulders.

A second attendant takes you by the hand and leads you to a wash basin. You begin washing your hands. The water turns black as the shame for all the hurt and pain you have caused others, all the shame for all the lies you have told, all the shame from all the times you failed to speak up for someone, all the shame for the cruel things you have said, all the shame washes out and down the drain. The water turns brown as all the shame from all the pain and hurt you have caused yourself, all the times you believed that you were not good enough, or that you were not worthy of being loved, and all the shame you feel for your arrogance and pride and self-centeredness, all of that shame you have caused yourself washes off and down the drain.

By now tears are streaming down your face. The attendant hands you a wash cloth. You place it under the water and bring up to your face. When it touches your face you feel all of the sorrow from all of your years flowing out of you. All of the sorrow for those who failed you, and all the sorrow for those you have failed. All of the sorrow for those you hurt, and all the sorrow for those who hurt you. All of the sorrow for those who left you and for those you left behind. All of the sorrow for the roads not taken. All the sorrow for the shortcuts that turned into dead ends. All the sorrow that was deposited into the well of your heart flows out and is washed away.

The attendant takes you by the hand again and leads you, famished and absolutely drained, into the next room. You sit at a huge table and plates of the finest foods are brought out. As you eat you are filled again with strength. For the first time in your life you feel truly and fully loved by God. Your sins and sorrow and shame washed away you are at ease for you know whose you are. You take a drink of the wine. As you relish its deep yet subtle flavors you look around at the people next to you. For the first time in your life you are filled with an absolute and selfless love for others. Your heart fills with joy and contentment for you have finally and truly come home.

You take another sip of wine and think of the words of Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wines – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfold all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the shame of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.

The feast pictured in Isaiah gives the people of Israel a glimpse of the age to come as a foretaste of the joy they will feel when they return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. In that feast they will celebrate the end of their shame, the end of their sorrow, the end of their exile from their homeland, the end of their separation from God. At the feast at the end of the age all peoples will gather to celebrate their own return from exile, the forgiveness for their sin, their reconciliation with God, and the end of sorrow, disgrace and death. My friends, you are invited to that banquet in the Kingdom of God.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus picks up on the image of a feast that marks the end of this age and the beginning of the new. He says it will be like a king who has prepared a banquet to celebrate the wedding of his son. The king has prepared a banquet, and he has invited the entire kingdom, as it were, to attend.

We have been looking at the topic of reconciliation over the past few weeks and we have seen how the biblical story culminates in God’s reconciliation with humanity and the world. The story begins with humanity turning away from God and being exiled from God and the garden. The story thus culminates with God coming to humanity first in Jesus and then in the New Jerusalem so that God will dwell with humanity. In both Isaiah and Jesus’ parable, people experience reconciliation with God in terms of hospitality. God’s reconciliation with us, his dwelling with us will be something like a huge party, a great feast, a banquet of the finest meats and the rarest of wines.

Well, if we will experience the new age as God’s hospitality, Jesus poses the question: how will those who are reconciled to God respond to God’s hospitality? You can be hospitable as a host – preparing a nice meal, making sure you have your guests’ favorite wine, making sure your guests are comfortable, and so on. Hospitable can mean being welcoming and generous to guests, but it can also mean “offering a supportive or sustaining environment,” and “being readily receptive.” I don’t know if there is a better word for it, but I think it is helpful to think of two sides of hospitality. There is the hospitality of the host, the generous giving and providing for the guest, and the hospitality of the guest, the grateful and open reception of what is offered by the host. If God’s act of reconciling himself to us and the world is characterized by the hospitality of God, our role is to be the hospitable guest. It is to be the one who receives openly, graciously, and with gratitude.

That, however, is not how the parable goes. The invited guests refuse to come and some even mistreat and kill the King’s servants. We may be shocked by the harsh punishments the king meets out in the parable, but think for a moment about what it means to be an inhospitable guest. Think about what it means to refuse the hospitality of a host, and not just any host, but a king, and not just any king, but God himself. What does it mean to refuse the hospitality of God?

In my children’s sermon I told the story of how Roxann and I had to eat four bowls of soup with countless potatoes in an afternoon so as not to offend our hosts. While it would have been rude to refuse, it would have meant much more. It would have emphasized the difference between us and our hosts in ways that would bring shame upon them. If we refused, it would have emphasized the fact that we were the white people, we were the wealthy people, and we were the ones with education and resources. It would have said that we were not in need of their generous offer of food. Refusing would have been not only rude but offensive because it would have shown who had power and who didn’t.

Refusing a King’s invitation is also not only rude, it is a power play. Those who refuse the King’s invitation are sending the message that they do not need or want the protection, the governance, and the justice the king provides. While some send a subtle message be simply refusing the invitation, others send the message loud and clear by mistreating his servants and even killing them. Their refusal is not just rude, it is an act of rebellion.

Similarly, the man who is caught not wearing wedding clothes is not only being rude in breaking convention, he is flouting the king’s power. Imagine you have invited a group of friends and colleagues over to your house. You have a nice dinner, and then one of your guests leans back in his chair and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. You kindly ask your guest to step outside to smoke because your daughter has asthma. But he continues to light up and says through a puff of smoke, “Oh a cigarette or two won’t kill her.” Your guest is not only being rude, he is making a power play. He is demonstrating his ability to disregard your rules and your wishes. He is daring you to make a scene, but he is arrogantly sure that he will win.

If we refuse to be hospitable guests with God, if we refuse to accept his hospitality, we are not reconciled to God. In refusing his hospitality, we set ourselves up against God and commit the same sin that sent humanity into exile in the first place. But can you imagine refusing the hospitality of God? You have been invited to the feast in the kingdom of God where you will feast on the finest meats and drink of aged wine? All the shame and sorrow you have ever felt will be wiped off your face, and the shroud of death will be removed from your shoulders. Won’t you accept?

Last week I argued that justice and worship were two tasks that continued the process of reconciliation, or maybe helped define the nature of the relationship between those who have been reconciled. Hospitality also characterizes the relationship between those who have been reconciled. In our reconciliation with God, we recognize that he is the host. He is the one calling us, bringing us, and welcoming us home. He opens up the doors of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, and everlasting life to us. To live into God’s welcome, we too must show hospitality and respond with a generous and open receptiveness. In other words we must finally live with him as our God, Lord and King, and we his people, servants, and children. Reconciled with God, we must seek reconciliation with others.

When we think of reconciliation among us as human beings, I think this notion of hospitality and the implications of power within hospitality are instructive. The extent and nature of our hospitality indicates the nature and extent of our reconciliation with others. In the United States we, and by “we,” I mean my group of “we,” we white, wealthy men, at least some of us, have worked toward reconciliation with ethnic minorities, with women, and with the poor, by seeking to welcome them some way into our sphere of influence. Reconciliation, we think, means that they come to be more like us.

The problem with this mind set is that it leaves the power structure which has caused the oppression of minorities, women, and the poor intact. If white, rich men are the hosts of the reconciliation process, we remain in control. “Reconciliation” proceeds at a pace and on the terms that are comfortable with us. Thus it doesn’t proceed very fast if at all, and it sometimes regresses. As we saw a few weeks ago, our reconciliation with God, levels the playing field between humans. It equalizes us, for we all stand on the same level before God, merely by his generosity and grace. For true reconciliation to happen there has to be a reversal of roles between males and females, whites and minorities, and rich and poor. Does not Jesus repeat over and over again, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?” For reconciliation to happen, the host must become the guest, and the guest the host.

The thing is that the power structures around race, gender and class are deeply embedded in our culture and our language. Take, for instance, how we speak about rape and domestic abuse. Jason Katz, an activist on these issues, writes about how the use of the passive voice has serious consequences when we talk about rape and abuse:

We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

[T]he use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it![1]

Part of being hospitable and moving towards reconciliation in this matter is for men to give up setting the table for the conversation. Men need to stop dictating the terms and the voice of the conversation. I struggle with how to say this because if I say that men need to allow women to set the table, then that still leaves men in a position of power. Rather, men need to come to the table being set by women. Similarly, and here you may also find yourself if not a man, the rich need to come to the table set by the poor, and whites to the table set by minorities. For the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

My friends, you have been invited to the feast in the Kingdom of God where you will know deep in your soul that all of your sin, all your shame, all your sorrow was washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ. And death will be no more. Will you accept? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you have forgiven us and set us free from the power of sin and death. Instill in us a hope for your Kingdom that we may begin living as your grateful and receptive guests. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Tim Haverda, “The Language of Gender Violence, Jackson Katz,” Philosophical Fragments (blog), June 7, 2017, See also Jackson Katz’s TED talk: “Violence against women – It’s a men’s issue,” November, 2012.

October 8, 2017 Justice and (True) Worship: The Tasks of the Reconciled
(Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] One Saturday morning José woke up early. He got himself dressed and was downstairs even before his mom had set out the bowls and cereal for breakfast. This was the day that his grandma was coming. He wanted to be ready when she arrived so that they could spend the whole day together.

José ate quickly. He bushed his teeth, combed his hair, and washed his face. As he came down the stairs he heard the doorbell and ran to open the door for his grandma.  “So what do you want to do today?” his grandma asked. “We could go to the park. We could go to the zoo. We could go for a bike ride. We could go to a movie.” “I don’t know, Grandma. What do you want to do?” José asked. And so they went back and forth. What do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do? Until Grandma finally got a bit fed up and said, “Now this is your day, so you choose. What do you want to do?”  “I don’t really care, Grandma. I just want to spend time with you.”

Do you ever feel that way about anyone? Maybe your mom or dad, or a friend, or your grandma or grandpa. You don’t really care what you do with them. The important things is to just be with them.

You know, that is why we come to church to worship each week. We do lots of things in worship. We sing. We read the Bible. We pray. But the main point of all of those things is that God wants to be with us, and he wants us to be with him. We believe that God is everywhere and that we can be with God any time. But when we come to worship, it is a special, dedicated time when being with God is the most important thing. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the past few weeks we have looked at various aspects of reconciliation, mostly about the process of reconciliation. We have looked at how the cost of reconciliation is death, that we must die, in a sense to ourselves as we confess our sins to God, in order to be reconciled to God. And how the cost of our reconciliation to God for God was also death, for Jesus died on our behalf in order to reconcile us to God. Similarly, last week we saw how humility was the means of reconciliation, that we have to put aside our pride and look at things from the other person’s perspective to bring about reconciliation. More so, God, in Jesus, humbled himself and took up our very form and nature for the sake of reconciliation.

In terms of our reconciliation with each other, we have seen how God’s mercy on us, our reconciliation with God, is the source of our reconciliation with others. Reconciling with God brings us into communion with God and thus into communion with all who have been reconciled with God. Reconciliation with God also brings equity among us, for we are all only reconciled to God because of his mercy and generosity.

This morning we begin looking more at the “what then” of reconciliation. If we are reconciled to God, what then does that mean for our lives? This week we will look at two tasks of the reconciled – justice and worship. And next week at one of the practices of reconciliation – hospitality. This is how we live out of our reconciliation with God.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus draws upon the image of Israel as God’s vineyard found in our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 5, and Psalm 80.  In Isaiah and Matthew the fruit of the vineyard is key to each passage. In Isaiah, God comes to look for fruit, for good grapes, but he finds only bad fruit, sour grapes, if you will. In Matthew, the owner of the vineyard sends his servants and finally his own son to collect the fruit, only to have first his servants and then his son killed by the tenants of the vineyard. In all three texts, the vineyard is, or will be, laid bare and destroyed as a judgment upon Israel. So it begs the questions, what is the fruit God is looking for? What are the good grapes the son has come to collect? What has Israel failed to produce for God?

From a broad biblical perspective, this question can be rephrased, what are the tasks of God’s people? In terms of this sermon series, it is fair to phrase this as, “What are the tasks of the reconciled?”  God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. He formed a covenant with her to be her God and for Israel to be his people. He cleared a land for her, and planted her in Canaan. What then, are the covenant stipulations for Israel? How, then, was Israel to live with God as their God, as the people of God? While there are others aspects to Israel’s task, let me raise up two that Isaiah highlights in and around Isaiah 5, and that Jesus, or Matthew, raises, in and around the parable of the Tenants: justice and worship.

Within the text from Isaiah, the task for Israel is to establish and maintain justice in the land. Verse 7, “he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Other examples of injustice abound preceding and following our text. Verse 8, “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone on the land.” The implication being that the rich have crowded out the poor by taking over all the land. You can page through the first chapters of Isaiah to find numerous examples of Israel’s injustice.

Injustice also appears within Jesus’ parable in the mistreatment and blatant murder of the owner’s servants and even of his son. Within the larger context of Matthew, I believe that Jesus calls out the injustice of the religious elite when he clears the temple of the money changers who are probably cheating the poor for Jesus says, “My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.” Jesus then tends to the poor and sick, healing the blind and the lame that come to him, demonstrating what justice and true worship look like. At the end of this section in chapter 23:23, Jesus chastises the religious leaders, “You give a tenth of your spices … But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Within Jesus’ parable, however, the main task that he accuses Israel of failing to do is simply to receive and to listen to God’s servants. That, in a word, is a failure of proper worship. Instead of properly worshipping God in the temple, they have committed injustice in the temple. Likewise, Isaiah opens his book with a judgement against Israel for their false worship. He goes so far as to call Israel “Sodom” and “Gomorrah,” and says, “”The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? … I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. … Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me” (1:10-13).

Let me suggest that maintaining justice and proper worship are two tasks of the reconciled because they simply carry on the process of reconciliation. If we are in need of being reconciled to God, if we have sinned against God, we have dishonored God, we have not treated God with the worth he is due. Worship is giving God his due. It is honoring him. As I said in the children’s sermon, it is taking time to be with him. While we are with God in worship we listen to him, praise him, thank him, confess to him, and receive from him. When we are reconciled to God we are rejoined to him. We are brought back into communion with him. Worship is the ongoing rejoining and communing with God.

Likewise, if we have sinned against our neighbor, we have not treated them with the worth they deserve. We have treated them unjustly. Full reconciliation and communion with our neighbor, thus requires justice be reinstated between us. The task of those who are reconciled to each other is thus to maintain justice. In a broader sense, then, those who are reconciled to God are called to seek justice where there is oppression and injustice within society. So justice and worship carry on the process of reconciliation.

I have preached frequently on justice. It is a frequent theme in scripture. And so this morning I will focus on worship.

When John Calvin reformed the liturgy of his church in Geneva he looked to two sources, the Bible and the early church. The form of worship we have therefore derives from the practices of worship we see evident in scripture and in the wisdom of the church throughout the ages. It should be noted as well that the form of worship followed by the early church was derived from the form of worship practiced in the Jewish synagogues. The first Christians were Jewish and God-fearing Greeks and so they continued to worship in the synagogues. The split between Christianity and Judaism happened gradually over the first century and so Christians continued many of the practices and forms of worship they knew from the synagogue.[1]  

Let's look at the five main sections or acts of worship.

Gathering – Confession – Word of God – Kingdom Feast – Sending / Commission

Now, while there is no set script of worship available to us in scripture, this ancient form of worship that we follow is wise because it is fitting to the occasion. In the first act of worship we are summoned into the presence of God, into the presence of our creator, our Lord, our Master, our King. We thus begin our worship with God’s call to worship and his greeting. We are gathered at his initiative and thus it is fitting that we respond with praise and thanksgiving and an opening up to God, a willingness to receive from God. Our initial prayer to God is therefore the invocation, a calling upon God that God be present with us through his Spirit so that the Spirit may transform our hearts in and through our worship.

It is thus fitting that our next act in worship is the confession of sin. In the presence of a Holy God, our frailty, brokenness, and sinfulness are laid bare. Worship, as I said earlier, is the ongoing process of reconciliation. We therefore confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. We are assured of our reconciliation with God so we hear God’s law, his will for how we ought to live as his reconciled people.

The next act of worship is the hearing of God’s word. In the hearing of the word, we enter again into the story of God reconciling the world to himself through Israel, through Jesus, and now through the church because we have been baptized into Christ. In the hearing of the word we receive the grace of God as we hear of what God has done for his people and for the world. God is gracious to us so that we may be instruments of his grace in the world. As God first spoke the creation into being, and then began the recreation of the world through the sending and in-fleshing of his Word, Jesus Christ, so we believe that the hearing of God’s word in worship is an act of recreation in us. It is through the proclamation of the good news of kingdom, the gospel of Jesus Christ, that those who have turned away from God repent and are reconciled to God. So too, it is in the hearing of God’s story that our hearts are formed and shaped by God’s Spirit and thus God’s word, in a sense, takes on flesh in us.

After God’s word we celebrate the sacraments. While we believe that God is everywhere and can work through many things, we believe that by instituting baptism and the Lord’s Supper Jesus promised that his Spirit would be particularly present in them. A sacrament is a physical sign instituted by Christ through which the Spirit of Christ works. In baptism we are joined to Christ both in his death and his resurrection. In the Lord’s Supper, we remember what Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection, we receive all the benefits of his sacrifice, and we are assured of his constant presence with us until he comes again. The Lord’s Supper is a feast of thanksgiving that gives us a taste of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, this portion of the service, whether we celebrate the meal or not, is defined by thanksgiving in prayer, in song, and in our offerings.

As I said earlier, there is no set script for worship laid out in Scripture, but the script of worship is fitting to the occasion. One could argue, however, that the whole story of scripture is the script of our worship. The story of scripture is that God creates, we sinned, God redeems us, he then commissions us to participate in the story, and we look ahead to the final recreation. In worship we are gathered, we are reformed as the people of God, we confess our sins, we hear of our redemption, and in the Supper we have a taste of the coming Kingdom, and then, the final act of worship, we are commissioned. God blesses us and we are sent as the body of Christ into the world.

Gathering – Confession – Word of God – Kingdom Feast – Sending / Commission

Creation – Fall / Sin – Redemption – Commission – Recreation / Kingdom of God

A second important aspect of Christian worship is that it is congregational. God calls a people to himself. When we are joined to Christ in baptism we are joined to all who have been baptized into Christ. We are therefore called together to worship – men and women, rich and poor, young and old, American and Taiwanese, Korean and Indian, Indonesian and Chinese. It is good and important for each of us as individuals or in small groups to extend our Sunday worship into and throughout the week. But when I pray my daily prayers, I pray this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, “Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your almighty power that we may not fall into sin or be overcome by adversity, and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[2]

When we pray as individuals or in small groups, we pray on behalf of and with the whole people of God. We never pray merely as individuals.  Our prayers, our meditations, our reading of scripture are extensions of our life together and should thus connect us more closely to one another rather than isolate us from each other. Any prayer that connects us more closely to Christ binds us more closely to all those baptized into Christ. All prayer, all forms of true Christian worship, are thus congregational whether they are done on Sunday morning or in the privacy of your own home.

In Isaiah the people approached worship as though it were a quid pro quo arrangement. We do this for you, God, and you do this for us. We bring you sacrifices, and you bless us with good harvests and prosperity. Such worship was detestable to God. It was a stench in his nostrils for it reflected and precipitated the injustice within the society.

True worship, at its most basic, is time spent with God. It is time spent honoring God and giving him the praise and thanks and glory that are his due. It is time spent receiving from God. And so in that time spent with God, we are formed, we are shaped, we are inculcated into ways of being. Throughout the week, then, we act not out of a mere sense of duty to God, obeying his laws because we fear punishment, but we act out of our being, we act out of who God is making us to be. Worship, as an ongoing act of reconciliation with God, shapes us to act in the world with justice, to continue the ongoing act of reconciliation with our fellow human beings. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen


“Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your almighty power that we may not fall into sin or be overcome by adversity, and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”


[1] See Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 56-58.

[2] The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 2007), 137.

October 1, 2017 Humility: The Means of Reconciliation
(Philippians 2:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Once upon a time there were two friends, Michelle and Mikala. They spent all there time together. It seemed almost as if Michelle was a part of Mikala’s family. She came over after school. She would stay for dinner. And on weekends she almost always stayed over at least one of the nights. Well one day Mikala said to Michelle, “I am bored. We always play at my house, but I am bored with my toys. Why don’t we go to your house tomorrow?” “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” replied Michelle. “You won’t like my toys.” “Sure I will,” said Mikala. “Let’s do it.” “No,” said Michelle. “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We just can’t” They went back and forth like this until they started shouting at each other. Mikala called Michelle selfish and some other names. Michelle burst into tears and ran all the way home.

When she got home, Michelle opened the back door and walked into the kitchen. Dishes from last night’s meal still cluttered the sink and the counter. She called out for her mom, but her sister called out from the living room, “She’s at work, stupid.” That is what her older sister always called her. Michelle had to agree that it was a stupid question because her mom was always at work, either at the Wal Mart or at the restraint where she waited tables. Michelle quickly walked through the living room where her sister lay sprawled on the couch watching TV. She didn’t want to let her sister see that she had been crying. But of course, as soon as she walked into their bedroom, her other sister, who sat on the bed doing her homework, looked up and said loudly, “Have you been crying? You were always such a cry baby.”

Michelle retreated to the only other room in her house, her mom’s bedroom. There she sat down on the floor and cried until there were no more tears. She felt mad, but mostly ashamed. How could she bring Mikala here? There would be no place to play. She didn’t have very many toys to play with anyway, and her two sisters would just tease them constantly.

When we get into arguments and disagreements with others, it is often because we don’t know the other person’s story. We don’t know why they believe what they believe. We don’t know why they say and do the things they do. Well the Apostle Paul wrote to a church in which some of the people had a disagreement, and this is what he told them, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to you own interests but each to the interests of others.” In other words, try to understand what the other person wants and where they are coming from. If Mikala had known that Michelle didn’t want her to come to her house because she was ashamed, Mikala would never have insisted that they play at Michelle’s house. When we have disagreements with others, Paul urges us to be like Jesus, who, although he was God, he became human because we had sinned against God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul deals with two main issues. First, there is an outside threat to the church. This threat is the same threat Paul always combats, that of Jewish Christians who insist that the Gentile Christians become Jewish. Second, there is division within the church. Reconciliation is therefore one of the main themes of Paul’s letter. This may not seem so obvious because Paul doesn’t explicitly mention the division until chapter 4:

 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

It may seem that this plea from Paul is just an added request as Paul wraps up his letter. “And, oh yeah, Euodia and Sntyche, stop fighting and get along.”  But notice how Paul frames this request. He calls for the help of someone named Syzygus, which means “yokefellow,” he emphasizes that these women have worked with Paul in the gospel in the past, he calls for help from Clement and other fellow workers. In the space of one sentence he reminds Euodia and Syntyche four times that they and others are fellow workers for Christ and the gospel.  So, rather than being just a side comment at the end of his letter, this is the conclusion of the letter. This is what Paul has been building up toward all along.

So let’s see how Paul gets to this conclusion. Paul often begins his letter with a greeting and a blessing followed by a prayer of thanksgiving. Now Paul will often use these opening pieces to point to the themes of his letters. So turn to chapter 1 and skim through the opening paragraphs and notice how often he uses the word “all.” “To all the saints in Christ Jesus.” V. 4 “In all my prayers for all of you. … (7) It is right to feel this way about all of you … all of you share in God’s grace with me. … I long for all of you.” Unity is thus a key theme of the letter.

Second, notice how he emphasizes both their partnership in the cause of the gospel, (verse 5) - they are fellow workers with Paul - and also Paul’s experience as one who contends for the gospel, verse 7, “whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel.” They are all partners with Paul in the cause of the gospel and this may lead to humiliating circumstances, such as Paul being arrested and put in chains.

Next, skim over the second half of chapter 1. Paul addresses several concerns here. The Philippians are concerned for Paul because he is in jail. They have sent him material and moral support. He wants to let them know that he is not defeated or dejected by his imprisonment. He wants to assure them that he is doing well. But more so, he wants to show them that the humiliation he is suffering for the sake of the gospel is actually being used by God for the advancement of the gospel. His imprisonment is not a defeat for God is the God of life, and death, and of resurrection. So Paul can say in verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For God can turn death into life.

Paul thus uses his own circumstance, his own humiliation suffered for the cause of the gospel, as a model for the Philippians to follow. He concludes the section in 1:27, but listen to this knowing that the context is, on the one hand the division in the church between Euodia and Syntyche, and, on the other, the need to remain united in the face of an outside threat to the church.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then .. I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. … For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Remain united, Paul urges them, reconcile so that you can continue working together for the cause of the gospel.

We then come to our passage this morning, which, I would argue, is the climax of the letter. So far Paul has not explicitly mentioned the division between Euodia and Synthyche, but this theme of unity has infused everything Paul has said so far, but know he makes this plea for unity explicit. “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

But what is the means of this unity? How does Paul urge them to remain united, and to seek reconciliation? “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”  Paul doesn’t tell them to just love the person they disagree with, or just to be kind to them, or to even to forgive them. He calls them to humility.

In the Webster’s dictionary humility and humble are defined negatively. That is they are defined by what they are not. Humility is defined as “Freedom from pride or arrogance,” and “the state of being humble,” which is positive, but humble is defined as “not proud or haughty,” so humility is “the state of not being proud.“ Paul first defines humility negatively, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Humility is not being proud and not being selfish.  He then puts it in positive terms, “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

To be humble is to look at things from the other person’s perspective, to walk in their shows a bit. It is to see what their needs and troubles and desires are. It is to put asides our tendency to think we know what is best. In our pride we think our perspective is the most logical and reasonable and moral perspective. Hiding under our pride, however, is our own desires, our own selfish ambition, our own vanity. When we only see things from our own perspective, in terms of our own interests, we create or enhance divisions with others. If others have a different perspective then they become wrong because we are obviously right.

But if in humility we value others as higher than ourselves, if we consider the possibility that they may not only have a different, but better perspective on things, then we open up the space for reconciliation. When both sides do this, then space for reconciliation opens up. Common ground is most often found. Understanding replaces disagreement and compromises are made more easily. Humility leads to reconciliation.

So when Paul is faced with a divided church, he calls the church to humility. He calls them to put aside their pride and their own positions and to seek the interests of the other party. But what about cases in which there is deep division. What do you do when the division is not between members of a church, but two opposing groups of people? How does Paul address the second issue in his letter, the threat from outside the church?

The answer is the same: humility. We already noted how Paul holds himself up as an example of humility in his work for the gospel that led to his imprisonment. If you read the book of Acts and the story behind Paul’s imprisonment, you will see that when Paul was accused by the Jews of breaking the law, he appealed to Caesar. But after his trial with King Agrippa, Agrippa concluded that Paul was innocent, saying, “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” In other words, Paul’s imprisonment was a choice made by Paul himself, a choice that was now being used by God to advance the gospel because it allowed Paul to proclaim the gospel before kings and governors and to the palace guards in Rome.

But Paul is merely imitating Christ, for Paul urges the Philippian church to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

You see, when humanity stood opposed to God, when we followed our own ways and worshipped our own gods, God chose the path of humility in order to reconcile us to him. He came to now, he walked in our shoes, not to see things from our perspective, but to be with us, to suffer for us, and to demonstrate his abundant love for us. Therefore, when we proclaim the gospel to those who do not know God, and even to those who stand opposed to us and to God, we can do no less than to follow in the path of Christ, the path of humility so that they may come to see the love of God in Christ Jesus and be reconciled to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

September 24, 2017 Equity: The Standard of Reconciliation
(Matthew 20:1-16) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Once upon a time there were three cups. A man came along one day and saw them sitting by the side of the rode. “Would you like to come and work for me? I will pay you each $100” the man asked “Yes, we would” they all replied. The man brought them to his house and into his kitchen. He told them he wanted them to fill up the pitchers that were sitting on the counter. So the first one when to work and got some water from the sink and poured it into one of the pitchers. (Pour three cups from font into a pitcher) The other two went to work as well. But while they were working, the first cup noticed something wrong. She noticed that when one cup filled herself up with water, the water immediately started spilling all over. (Pour three cups into pitcher). And what was worse, the third cup could hardly hold any water it had so many holes in its bottom (pour three cups into the third pitcher.) 

Well they worked for a while and the first cup couldn’t help noticing that she was filling more pitchers than the others. When the end of the day came, the man came into the kitchen and he noticed all the pitchers the first cup had filled, and then he noticed that the second cup had filled some pitchers, but not as many, and that the third cup had hardly filled any pitchers at all. He called the third one to him and paid him $100 dollars.

The other cups looked at each other and gave each other a knowing wink. But when the man gave the second cup $100 dollars and then the first cup $100, the first cup spoke up. “That’s not fair,” she said, “I filled all those pitchers, and this cup filled about half as many, but that other cup hardly filled any at all, yet you paid us all the same?  I should get more than the others.” But the man answered him, “I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for me? Didn’t I pay you what we agreed?  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money? Why are you upset if I am generous to the others?”

Last week we saw that we are all like these cups. No one is perfect. We each have our own flaws. Well Jesus once told a story like this to teach us that God loves to be generous to everyone and he loves to have mercy on everyone no matter what our flaws. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” Jesus begins the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the little word, “For.” That means that he tells this parable in order to comment on what he has just said. If you look back to chapter 19, you can see that the preceding material all begins with the question that the rich young man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” That is, “How can I be assured that I am counted among the righteous at the coming of God’s kingdom? How can I be assured that I am in and not out?”

Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man is quite sure of himself and says that he has already kept them all. Jesus replies, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the man walks away dejected because he is very wealthy, Jesus says to his disciples “I tell you the truth, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The disciples are dismayed, “Who then can be saved?” they ask. Wealth, you see, was seen as a sign of righteousness. This man was obviously blessed by God. People looked up to him and expected him to be a righteous person. So Jesus tries to explain, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Peter responds, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”The rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What can I do to get eternal life?” Peter says, “Look at what we have done, Jesus. We have left everything like you said. Does that get us eternal life?” We all want to know what we can do to get eternal life. We all want to know how we can achieve eternal life.

We live in a society that values achievement. On the one hand we believe that we are what we achieve. On the other hand we assume, like the disciples, that those who are wealthy have achieved their success so also must be virtuous. Two stories to illustrate. Frist, the other night Roxann and I watched a quirky movie called Frances Ha, which tells the story of a struggling dancer in New York named Frances Halladay.[1] The film follows Frances as she moves from one apartment to another and in and out of various levels of friendship with her flat-mates. As only an apprentice in her dance company, and never a full member, she can’t afford to live on her own. Eventually the director of the company terminates Frances’ apprenticeship and offers her clerical work for the company. Frances refuses and her life spirals downward. She goes home to Sacramento, California for a few weeks, takes an uneventful two-day trip to Paris which bankrupts her, and then takes job working at her alma matter, Vassar College. There she lives in a dorm and works as part of the wait staff at the various events put on by the college for wealthy alumni. At age 27, she finds herself back at square one.

Humbled and desperate, Frances returns to New York and begs to live with a member of her old dance company. She takes up the clerical position at the company and begins work on choreographing her own dance show. The movie climaxes with the opening of her show which is attended by all her former friends and flat-mates. She is finally able to play host to those who have hosted her. The movie ends with Frances moving into her own apartment. She writes her name on a slip of paper, Frances Halladay, and slips it into the space on her mailbox. The space is too small, so it ends up reading “Frances Ha,” the title of the movie.

We live in a society that teaches us that we are what we achieve. Frances is never “home” until she attains some level of success. Before the opening of her own show, she is always striving after success, but never successful. She is always searching for a place to live, but never at home and always depending on the hospitality of others. Before she is a failing dancer, after she is a choreographer. She can only come home, she can only be a whole person after she achieves.

So we believe that we are what we achieve, but we also believe that those who are wealthy have achieved their success and are in some sense inherently virtuous. Mandy Rodgers-Gates, a student at Duke Divinity school, recently posted a commentary entitled, “To whom do we give second chances?” on the blog, Women in Theology.[2] Rodgers-Gates relates two recent stories that demonstrate the disparity between rich and poor, and black and white.

In the first, five football players from Wheaton College were recently charged with assault and kidnapping. In the spring of 2016 they grabbed a freshman student from his dorm, duct taped his arms and legs, dragged him out to a car, put a hood over his head, sat on him, punched and tormented him during the drive to a park. There they took him out into 45 degree weather, beat him some more, and then left him. They took his cell phone and he had no idea where he was or now to get back to the college. While this incident was made known to the administration at Wheaton, which supposedly dealt with the guilty football players, they all played in last weekend’s football game. They had obviously been given a second chance by the college, even though the young man they tormented left the school immediately and has had to have two surgeries to correct the damage done to his shoulders.

Rodgers-Gates contrasts the second chance given to these five, white, presumably wealthy football players with Michelle Jones. Jones grew up in an abusive home before being tossed around the foster care system. When she was 14, she was raped and became pregnant. Four years later she murdered her 4 year old son. She was convicted and spent 20 years in jail. While in jail she acquired an undergraduate degree in history and became a published scholar in American history. She applied to the Harvard Ph. D. program in history. She was initially accepted into the program, but then the offer was rescinded because some professors believed she didn’t show enough remorse for her crime.

So why is it that the five, white football players at a private college get a second chance, but not the black woman who has served 20 years for her crime? Rodgers-Gates writes, “U.S. society as a whole has come to associate suffering and poverty with vice, and wealth and status with virtue. … the powerful are transformed into the virtuous. And we are happy to give them second, third, fourth…an infinite number of chances, because we know they have it in them to change. But those on the outskirts of society? The poor? The struggling? The sick? They probably did something to deserve their lot.”

And so it is natural that we think that we have to achieve when it comes to our relationship with God, and that those who have succeeded in life have achieved in their relationship with God. And so when the rich young man feels he has followed all the important commandments, it makes sense that he wants to know what more must he do. Has he done enough? And when Jesus tells him to go and sell everything and then come and follow him, Peter thinks he and his buddies have found the key to eternal life. “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus assures them that “when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

But then Jesus throws a curve into Peter’s calculus: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Peter thinks he and his pals have done the utmost for Jesus. They have fulfilled the greatest commandment. They have left everything to follow Jesus. He thinks they will be first in line when Jesus hands out rewards to his followers in the age to come. He thinks they will be at the top of the heap.

So Jesus tells them this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius, [the usual amount for a day’s work] and he sent them into his vineyard.” The landowner found other workers around noon and some others around 5 O’clock and sent them all to work in his vineyard. At 6 O’clock he came to pay the workers. He paid the ones who arrived at 5 a denarius, and then the ones at noon a denarius, and then the ones who worked all day a single denarius. Incensed, the ones who worked all day complained that they only received a denarius like the others when they had borne the brunt of the work. “Take your pay and go,” the landowner said, “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Again, Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jesus tells the disciples this story because they have missed the point of his interaction with the rich man. When Jesus says that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, the disciples wonder who then can be saved. Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.” The rich can’t buy their way into the kingdom and the righteous can’t earn their way into the kingdom. If it is impossible for the rich to achieve their way into the kingdom of God, it is impossible for everyone. Even for those who leave everything behind to follow Jesus. But all things are possible with God.

What Peter doesn’t understand is that he and his companions leave everything behind to follow Jesus because God has brought them into the kingdom. They don’t leave everything and follow Jesus to get into the kingdom. The only way you can leave everything behind is if you have already had a taste of the impossible that God does. The only way you will leave everything behind is if you have sensed that God has had mercy upon you.

And so, when we find ourselves in the kingdom, we will find ourselves there for two reasons. First we will be there because we were sinners, and second we will be there because God has had mercy on us. And there we will see Jesus giving a reward to a serial killer who repented on his way to the gallows. And we will then see Jesus giving the same reward to Mother Teresa for her years of leaving everything behind to serve the poor and to heal and comfort the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta. For the last will be first, and the first will be last in the kingdom of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, grant that we, like children, may receive your love with a simple faith and so have mercy on others as you have had on us. Amen.

[1] Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach, (ICF Films, 2012), film.

[2] Mandy Rodgers-Gates, “To Whom Do We Give Second Chances,” Women in Theology, September 19, 2017,

September 17, 2017 God’s Mercy: The Source of Reconciliation
(Matthew 18:21-35) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there were two cups: a small, white styrofoam cup, and a larger, red plastic cup. The red cup noticed that the white cup always leaked water all over the counter. [Pours water into cup which has a slow drip.] “You are no good,” the red cup said to the white one. “Everyone knows that styrofoam is bad for the environment. It is brittle and breaks easy. You obviously won’t last long. And what’s more. You have a leak. What good is a cup that leaks?” [As water is poured into the red] And so the Red cup spent day after day taunting and teasing the white cup about how useless and worthless he was. [Water gushes out of the bottom of the red cup.] What do you all think of the red cup?

Once upon a time Peter asked Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus then told this story:

There once was a Government official who owed the king a billion dollars, but he did not have the money. The king threatened to throw him in jail and to sell his wife and children into slavery. He begged the king for mercy. And the king forgave him and cancelled his debt.

Leaving the king, the Government official went and found a man who owed him a hundred dollars. He demanded that the man pay him back. But this man, too, did not have the money. The man begged the government official for mercy, but the government official had the man thrown into prison until he could pay him back.

When the king heard about this, he called the government official in and said, “You wicked servant. I cancelled the huge debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow man just as I had on you?” Then the king threw the man into prison.

If God has forgiven us of all of our sins, don’t you think we ought to forgive others if they sin against us? [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

 Have you ever had to forgive someone? Not for something small and petty, but for a real offense? It is easy to forgive minor offenses. Someone keeps getting your name wrong. A friend forgets to pay you pack for the dinner you bought. Another friend stands you up and you hear that they went and made plans with someone else. That’s really rude and hurtful, but it is still a pretty minor offense. But have you ever had to forgive someone for truly hurting you deeply? It isn’t easy, is it?

Peter asks a question that he thinks stretches the requirements of grace to their limits. “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister? Up to seven times? Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Now Jesus doesn’t mean for us to keep track of someone who sins against us, counting up seventy seven so that we can stop forgiving the person and let them have it. Peter wants to know the limit of grace, but Jesus says, there is no limit on grace. Grace is not in limited supply. It is not a commodity that can be bought and sold.  It does not need to be rationed. 

Grace is not a commodity that is in short supply, but how we do we draw upon the well of grace? Forgiving others is difficult. It is hard enough to forgive someone who has sinned against you once, but seven times? Let alone an unlimited number of times? How does Jesus expect us to have the resources to forgive?

Some might say that we ought to just love other people. We read recently in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the Law. Even the Beatles knew that “all you need is love.” So we just need to recognize the basic goodness of all people and love them as Jesus commands us to love them.

But are we really able to do that? Do we have it in ourselves to love others that deeply and that unconditionally? Could we love someone enough to forgive them seventy-seven times? Or even seven times? Can our belief in the basic goodness of a person withstand the repeated evidence to the contrary if they continue to sin against us? How many times must someone sin before we start wondering if they really are basically good?

While Jesus does command us to love others, that is not his answer here. Rather, he tells the story of the unmerciful servant. Now what we have to realize is that this servant is no ordinary servant and the amount of money involved is no ordinary amount. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian and scholar, reported that the yearly taxes owed by Palestine to Rome amounted to 8 thousand talents. This is a huge amount of money.

We must therefore surmise that the man owed the king this money not because it was a personal loan, but because the money owed had to do with the responsibilities given the servant. In order to owe the king ten thousand talents, the servant must have been put in charge of some very important aspect of the kingdom. Maybe the servant was in charge of the kings mines. Maybe he was the port authority and collected all the tolls from the ships docking in the kingdoms harbors. Maybe we was the chief tax collector, overseeing the collection of taxes over the whole kingdom.

Third, we can then also surmise that there were several reasons why this man owed such a large amount. Ten thousand talents don’t just disappear without a trace. The man probably stole much, but he probably also mismanaged his post as well. The servant has probably both failed at his job and betrayed the king. The sin of this servant goes beyond the ten thousand talents. His sin is financial and personal. His sin is astronomical.

The king gets wind of the servant’s malfeasance and calls him in to give account. The servant knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He is a traitor, a thief, and an incompetent servant. He does the only thing open to him. He begs for mercy. … And the king forgives him. The king not only forgives him of the money he owes, but he also forgives him for his betrayal, for his theft, and for his incompetence. The king’s mercy is limitless.

The other week I talked about the cost of reconciliation. Think about what this reconciliation has cost the king. It costs him ten thousand talents. It costs him the chance to demonstrate his justice, to show everyone that if you swindle and betray the king you will pay for it. But the king sets that all aside and he takes up the shame of being swindled, the shame of being betrayed, the shame of being dishonored. In a sense the king dies to himself in order to forgive his servant. Forgiveness is hard because it is costly. Where are we to find the resources to forgive?

Jesus’ point is that we are that servant. We have owed our king a fortune. We have all betrayed him and failed to pay our debt. But the king has shown us mercy. We all live at the mercy of God because of the grace of God.

Marjorie Thompson, a Presbyterian pastor and author, writes, “The capacity to identify with human sin to its outer reaches characterizes the humility and lack of judgmentalism present in so many holy ones throughout the centuries. Mercy for others grows from sorrowful knowledge of the human heart we share. The ability to acknowledge one’s own sin is thus a powerful path to forgiveness of others.”[1]

Forgiveness grows through our awareness of the universal human plight of sinfulness and that we each share in it. When we recognize and admit that we are sinners, that we have offended God and others, that we are no better than anyone else, and maybe worse than some, the pride in our judgementalism deflates. How can we point at others’ sins, when we share the same sinful heart? How can we not extend mercy, when we too are in need of mercy? The unmerciful have not been honest about their own need for mercy.

But, you might say, doesn’t that encourage a pessimistic and low view of humanity? If we are always focusing on our sins and the sins of others, won’t we grow to expect the worst in others? Won’t it be harder to love others if we have such a dim view of humanity?

Not necessarily. We humans, you, and I, have only sinned so greatly against God because of who he has made us. The servant’s sins were so astronomical because he had been given such a high position in the kingdom. He could not have sinned so greatly if he had been a mere street sweeper. We humans are made in the image of God. Like the servant, we have been given authority and responsibilities within God’s kingdom.

The psalmist says in Psalm 14, “The Lord looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (2-3). But the psalmist also says in Psalm 8, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (3-6).

Unless we appreciate what it means to be made in the image of God, we will never understand how grievous our sins are. We were made to reflect God’s glory. We were made to represent God within his creation. We were made to exercise God’s authority and execute his reign over the world. When we fail in our calling, when we sin our actions cast shame not only upon us, but upon God in whose name we act. And just as all humans were made in the image of God to represent God, so we Christians receive the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper and are sent out as Christ’s body in the world. When we sin we shame God and Christ, the one who has already died for our sins.

Thompson says that mercy grows from the knowledge of our common sinfulness, but the soil of mercy is not our sinfulness, or the sinful human condition, but the mercy of God. When we not only admit our own sinfulness, that we are no better than anyone else, but also recognize the abundant grace God has showered upon us, then we are truly empowered to forgive others. When we recognize God’s grace for us, we truly know what Paul means when he says that we “live and move and have our being” in God. When we recognize the grace of God, then we live and move and have our being in the grace of God, and so we have an abundant resource of grace available to us.

The only limit to grace, so Jesus implies, is the limit we place upon it. If we refuse to live out of God’s grace, if we refuse to be merciful to others, then we have refused the grace of God. The unmerciful servant refuses to live in and out of the grace he has been offered, and so he places himself outside of the grace of the King. He has been forgiven, but because he does not live of this grace, he is not reconciled to the king. God’s grace not only brings us forgiveness but it also brings us back into a right relationship with God so that we begin to live in his image, reflecting his grace. If we refuse to forgive others, we have refused to live out of God’s grace and so have not been reconciled to God.

Our lives, you see, are completely gratuitous. It was God’s grace that caused us to be in the first place. There is no necessity in our lives. God did not need to make us. He did not need to make us in his image. It could have been otherwise with no damage to God. But God chose to give us life because he is a loving and gracious God. Our existence is based on his good will. It is gratuitous.

But so is the fact that, as the psalmist says in Psalm 103:

[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west, 

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

We live out of the grace of God because he created us, because he made us in his image, because he withholds his judgment upon us, and because he forgives us. When we recognize that God’s grace is the source of our very lives, then we are reconciled to God, then we have a limitless supply of grace with which to forgive others and to reconcile with them. We have no need to harbor anger, because God has turned his anger away from us. We have no need to see others suffer for their sins, because Jesus has suffered for us. We have no need to be repaid, because all we have and all anyone else has comes from the hand of God. And we have the humility to swallow the shame of being sinned against, because our glory is in a King who hung upon a cross. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silent prayer and meditation]

God of mercy:

Help us to forgive, as you have forgiven us.

Help us to take up our cross daily

and follow you in your redeeming work;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Marjorie Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings ,quoted in John S. Mogabgab, Rueben P. Job, and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God (Upper Room Books, 2013), 279.

September 10, 2017 Communion: The Goal of Reconciliation
(Matthew 18:12-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Jesus once told his disciples this parable: “If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

This story teaches us how much God loves each one of us. It reminds us that he will go to great lengths to save everyone of his precious children. But Jesus tells us this parable not only to teach us about God, but also to encourage us to be like God. You know what Jesus says next? “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen, you have won them over.”

So what do you think you should do if a friend of yours did something mean to you? Should you do something mean back to them to get even with them? Should you tell everyone else how mean they were to you? Or should you do all that you can to heal your friendship? You know, Jesus says, “Where two or three people come together because of me, there I am with them.” That means that if you forgive your friend and you come together as friends again because you know that that is what Jesus would like you to do, that Jesus is present with you. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

“Truly I tell you, that if two of you agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). I think we all could have agreed yesterday to ask God to redirect Hurricane Irma back out to sea. I think we could all agree right now that a nuclear confrontation with North Korea be avoided. I think we could all agree that Israel and Palestine should come to a peace agreement. I think we could all agree that if one of our loved ones were sick, it would be good for them to get better. I think we could all agree that it would be good for all visitors who come to Hessel Park Church to hear a clear presentation of the good news of the Kingdom of God and to believe and trust that Jesus truly is Lord. We could all agree that Hessel Park should become for them a welcoming and encouraging community of brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians have a tendency to divide themselves over numerous things, but all of us here, let alone just two of us, could agree about these things and ask God in prayer for these things. Can we not expect then, that it will be done for us by our Father in heaven?

I imaging that this verse is at once a source of great comfort and hope to many Christians, but also a great stumbling block to many. It holds out such a great promise of God’s provision and care for us, but yet it is patently obvious that it can’t mean what it seems to so plainly say. We as Christians, in groups of two or three, as whole congregations, as whole denominations, agree on numerous things that we pray for week after week, yet they are not done for us by our Father in heaven.

Of course we will then do all kinds of theological gymnastics to explain how these words can still be true in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We are not praying with enough faith. Our agreement must be in line with God’s will. Our prayers are selfish in nature and not concerned with the honor of God for the next verse says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” So our prayers go unanswered because we are somehow not truly gathered in the name of Jesus. … Or maybe we are lifting this verse completely out of its context. Maybe this verse is not a blanket assurance that God will answer whatever prayer Christians offer together. While this verse may not offer us the comfort we think it does, it promises us something even deeper.  

So what does this verse mean within its context? Let’s look at the context. Verses 15-17 deal with how we in the church ought to seek out reconciliation with another Christian who has sinned against us. Verse 18 also deals with reconciliation for we saw the other week that the language around binding and losing had to do with the rabbis’ job of interpreting the law which determined what people could and could not do which determined their status within the people of God, whether they were in or out. The other week we saw that Jesus handed this power over to the church and centered it not upon following the law, but on our confession of Jesus as Lord. Here Jesus implies that our actions must equate with our confession. If we confess Jesus as Lord then we must remain in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The binding and loosing here, therefore, has to do with sin and forgiveness, with reconciliation. Our forgiveness of each other, our reconciliation with each other is a reflection of our reconciliation with Christ..

If the context of verse 18 is reconciliation, so too is it for verse 20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.”  The Greek word for “gather” is sunago, from which the word synagogue comes from. Taken out of context it is natural to assume that Jesus is talking about the church, that whenever Christians gather together in Jesus’ name, he is there with them. But sunago can also mean to reconcile. Yes, Jesus is talking about the church in verses 15-17, but his main point is not about the nature of the church, but about the nature of reconciliation. What Jesus is saying is that when Christians reconcile, when repentance occurs and grace is shown, when forgiveness and reconciliation happen among Christians, he is there among them.

So the immediate context of verse 19 is reconciliation, but so is the broader context. Peter does not think that Jesus has changed the subject in verses 19 and 20. He is still thinking about sin between members of the fellowship of Christ in verse 21 for he asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” Jesus answers with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant which, has to do with those who are merciful verses those who are unmerciful. Jesus concludes the whole section by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” In other words, seek forgiveness and forgive one another, reconcile with one another, be gracious to each other, be like God for he has been gracious to you.

So the immediate context of verse 19 is reconciliation, the material following it continues to be about reconciliation, and so too the preceding material. In verses 12-14 Jesus tells the parable of the wandering sheep. This too is about God going out of his way to reconcile “any of these little ones” who may have wandered off. Let me suggest, then, that the whole of chapter 18 centers on the theme of reconciliation. Verses 1-10 make a contrast between the humble and the proud, but the gist of it is in verse 3, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is, in other words, the humble rather than the greatest who are reconciled to God.

So then, how are we to understand verse 19, “Truly I tell that if two of you on earth agree about anything about which they have asked, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Let me suggest understanding it like this: If the Illini win any football games this season, it will be by the brilliant coaching of Lovey Smith. If you ace your exam next week, it will not be by your innate genius, but by your hard work of studying. “If two of you come to an agreement, if you reconcile over any matter, about which you have asked, about which you have prayed to God, it will be done for you by your Father in heaven. Your reconciliation will come about not by your own efforts but through the grace of God working in your hearts, yes, as an answer to your prayers.”[1]

Some may object to this interpretation, they may feel it takes away a great promise from us that God will answer our prayers. I would argue, however, that this interpretation turns the focus off of what our desires are and what we want and how we may be tempted to manipulate God, and turns us to focus on what God wants and what God wants of us. It turns our focus towards the theme of this whole section – reconciliation and the grace of God that enables reconciliation.

We often read verses 15-17 as a template for church discipline. It is often read, however, with the same spirit as Peter’s question in verse 21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Peter thinks he is being pretty patient and gracious allowing someone to sin against him even up to seven times. But the question is still, “what is the limit?” When can I cut my brother or sister who sins against me off? When someone in the church sins, what all must be do before we expel them? What is the limit of grace?

Listen, however, to Jesus’ progression of grace. Jesus says, “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Our first instinct when we have been wronged is to get others on our side. It is to tell others how someone has wronged us so that we can build up a case against that person. But Jesus says to protect the reputation of the other person. Go to them privately. Try to work it out between just the two of you. Before bringing anyone else in, offer grace.

But if that doesn’t work, then try again. This time try to work it out with as few other people as possible. “Take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

And if that doesn’t work, try again. If you can’t work it out with the help of one or two others, then go to the church. And I would argue that going to the church would mean going to the church leadership, that such a matter should be brought to as few people as possible in the church to help you solve your dispute with your brother or sister. Jesus says if someone sins against you, show them grace, and if that doesn’t work, try again and again.

Only after a third attempt has failed, does Jesus say, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Now I would argue that it is at this point that many templates for church discipline go terribly wrong. Typically such a template will say, if you have sought reconciliation through these steps, well, you have done your duty and the person can therefore be removed from the community of believers. They are to be treated as a Gentile or a tax-collector. Treat them as an unrepentant sinner. Exclude them from the assembly of believers.

But how does Jesus treat tax-collectors? Matthew 9:10: “Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.” In 11:19 Jesus says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” In chapter 10 Matthew lists the twelve apostles who include “Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector.” The very author of this gospel was a tax collector. And so Jesus can say to those who counted themselves as among the righteous in 21:31-32, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” 

Jesus, you see, is the shepherd who leaves behind the 99 to find the 1. If someone who sins against you refuses to listen to you, and also to two or three of you, and also to the church, treat them like a tax collector, as Jesus did. Treat them as a friend. Eat and drink with them. Invite them into your home. Accept invitations to their home. Leave behind your 99 righteous friends in the church and seek them out your friend who has wandered off. For if and when the two of your reconcile and come to an agreement over this issue that you have prayed about, it will be God who has been at work in you to bring about your reconciliation.

Once upon a time there were two brothers who went into business together. The business did very well and the brothers were very successful. But the younger brother grew to resent the older. He was tired of being ordered around by the older brother and tired of always living in his shadow.  Now the younger brother was in charge of the books for the business. So he set up a secret account and he began siphoning off some of the profits into the secret account. After a few years he had built up a fortune, but as he did so, the business fell into ruin.

And as the business fell apart, so too did the brothers. The older brother was so angry, he could have killed his younger brother. So he packed all his things and left to live in another country. Away from his brother, his was able to suppress his anger and get on with his life. He started another business and that did fairly well, but after a few years he started to feel that his life was empty. He remembered the church he went to as a child with his parents and his brother and he longed for what he had felt and known about God back then. So he enrolled in a seminary.

At the seminary he learned all kinds of things about God. He learned to read the bible in the Hebrew and in the Greek. He could expound about several different theories of the Trinity. He knew and believed the teachings of the church inside and out, but yet his life still felt empty.

At seminary he had been introduced to the worship of Taize. It gave him a taste of the peace he once felt as a boy in church. And so he went to live in a monastery. At the monastery he worshipped with the brothers eight times a day. He learned to do lectio divina, he practiced silence and solitude and contemplative prayer. He fasted and kept the Sabbath. Finally, he approached the Abbot to tell him that he wanted to join the monastery. The Abbot asked him, “Why do you want to join our order?” “Because I want to know God,” the older brother said. Knowing the older brother’s story, the Abbot said, “Go home. Reconcile with your brother.  If you cannot find God in your brother, you will not find him anywhere.”

Friends, if you want to know God, if you want communion with God, then focus on what God does and what God wants of us - practice grace, seek reconciliation. Seek communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Reconcile with anyone with whom you have a disagreement. Treat those who are outside the communion of the church as Jesus treated the tax collectors and sinners, as friends – eat and drink with them, invite them into your home, accept invitations to their home. Practice grace, hospitality, and above all, love. Verse 19 does not promise that God will answer any prayer, but it does promise us that if we are seeking reconciliation with others and praying to God for it, then God will be at work in us and in that situation. For Jesus says, “where two or three reconcile in my name, there I am with them. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] See Ph.D. dissertation by Paul Daniel Larson, “A New Interpretation of Matthew 18:18-20: Reconciliation and the Repentance Discourse.” (The University of Edinburgh, 2013).

September 3, 2017 The Cost of Reconciliation
(Matthew 16: 21-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There once was a village of creatures who lived on the bottom of a river.[1] The water flowed swiftly over them so they had to cling to the rocks around them to avoid being dragged off down the river by the current. With one hand they would hold on to the rocks while they stuck the other up into the current hoping they could catch something to eat.

One day one of the creatures thought, “There must be more to life than this. There must be more to life than just hanging on and catching food.” So the little creature said, “I am going to let go. I want to do more than just hang on to the rocks and catch food with my hand. I want to see more of the river.”  “Don’t do it,” the other creatures all pleaded with her. “Don’t do it. The current will sweep you away and bash you into the rocks. You will get hurt. Who knows what will happen?”

But the pleading of the other creatures couldn’t convince her, so she let go. She was quickly swept up and away by the current, and then down and around. She banged into rocks and the bottom of the river. She glanced off of a sunken log and for a while got trapped in a whirlpool. Round and around she spun until she didn’t think she could take anymore. But she began wriggling her body and kicking and moving her arms. She found that she could direct where she wanted to go. She went up out of the whirl pool and into the gentle part of the river. There she learned to turn right and left, up and down and around. Soon she found that she could even swim against the current.

Thrilled and excited she explored the river – its banks and the bottom pools. She swam to the surface and looked out above the water to see giant trees and brilliant flowers on the banks of the river. She dove back under and swam back to her village to tell them all she had seen and to show them that they too could learn to swim, to show them that there was so much more to life than holding on to the rocks.

Jesus once said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Sometimes in life we have to go through difficult times. Sometimes things cause us a lot of sadness and hurt. But after we go through those times, we find that God uses those hard times to help us to grow, to help us to become better people. Just so, if we truly want to follow Jesus, we have to give up our very lives to him. That is hard to do, and it can be painful. But if we trust in God and give up our lives to Jesus, he will give us a new and greater life. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week I asked you to imagine having a friend who had hurt you in some way, and what it would take for you to reconcile with your friend. Now I invite you to imagine that you are that friend. Imagine that you are the one who has hurt your friend. You are the one who has betrayed the friendship. What does it mean for you to apologize to your friend? What does it take emotionally, socially, and spiritually to say to another, “I am sorry. I was wrong. I am guilty.”

Let me suggest that something in you has to die in order for you to be truly contrite and repentant. You have to swallow your pride. You have to admit that you were wrong. And you have to surrender yourself to your friend. You have to place yourself at their mercy. You have to recognize that they have a right to demand something from you.

In a legal sense, when you are at fault in, say a car crash, or if you cut down a tree and damage your neighbor’s fence, you are liable for the damages caused by your action. The other party has a right to some of your property to make up for the loss of their property. But the same is true in an emotional and a spiritual sense when we wrong someone else. When we harm someone, insult them, or disrespect them, they have a right to our humility, to our contrition, to our abasement. And so for reconciliation to happen, when we are in the wrong, we have to give up something, usually several things. We, in a sense, have to die to a part of ourselves.

Last week I argued that Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ was the climax of the whole biblical story of God’s reconciliation with humanity. When Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, he recognized him as the King of God’s people, as God’s representative, and so he, in a sense, pledged his loyalty and obedience to Christ and thus to God. This morning’s text is perhaps another side of the same coin and still part of the climax of this whole biblical story.

“From that time on,” we read in verse 21, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus went to the cross because the cost of reconciliation is death.

As the Christ, as the King of God’s people, Jesus not only represents God to us, but he represents us to God. The cross of Christ is therefore the means by which our reconciliation with God is put into effect. Jesus dies on our behalf. He represents humanity as we stand before God as those who have offended God, as those who are in the wrong, as those who need to repent.

But, some may ask, why does Jesus have to die? Why can’t God just forgive our sins? I understand that there is a sort of death, a death of our pride, a death of part of our ego, but why must there be a physical death?

Well, when we look at how we are reconciled to God, there are three basic ways to look at this. We in the West often look at reconciliation with God from a judicial aspect. Pauls’ letters often emphasize this judicial aspect of our reconciliation to God through the cross of Christ. This is, in part, because he is writing to churches in the Greco-Roman context, and Greco-Roman society was a law-based, or guilt based culture. From a judicial perspective, as God’s creatures, as God’s servants, we owe God our obedience, we owe him our very lives. Therefore when we disobey him it is, if you will, a capital offense. It is a crime deserving of death. And so in this judicial sense, the cost of reconciliation is death. But Jesus, as our representative, undergoes death for us. He suffers the cost of our disobedience.

A second way to look at our reconciliation with God, however, is from a more Eastern perspective. Eastern cultures are more shame and honor based, rather than guilt and law based. Humans were made in the image of God and appointed as God’s stewards, as bearers of God’s authority within the creation. We were thus given the highest place of honor within the creation. We therefore owe back to God great honor, glory and praise. But when we turn away from him, when we follow our own ways and dishonor him then we bring shame upon ourselves and we must be exiled from the presence of God. Those who dishonor God cannot remain in his presence for they will continue to bring shame upon him.

The gospels reflect this culture more than Paul’s letters for they reflect the culture in which Jesus’ ministry and death actually took place. The Jewish culture, you see, was more an Eastern culture than a Western culture. The emphasis in the passion narratives – Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion – is not so much on the guilt he bears for us, but upon the shame and ostracism he endures for us. He is humiliated and everyone, including God, abandons Jesus. Death is thus the ultimate humiliation and exile which he undergoes for us. It is the cost of reconciliation.

So you can look at the cross from a judicial, legal perspective, and from a shame and honor, let’s say a relational perspective, but you can also look at it from a deeper, ontological perspective. Ontological is just a fancy word for thinking about the very nature of reality, the nature of our being. The judicial aspect and the relational aspect of our reconciliation with God are important and true, but they can still leave us asking, why couldn’t God just forgive? Why is death still the cost of reconciliation?

It is necessary because death is the natural result of separation from God. As Paul says to the Athenians, “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the creator of all things, he is the constant source of all life. If we are removed from the source of life, we die. If we stop breathing, we will die. If we stop drinking water, we will eventually die. If we stop eating food, we will eventually die. Likewise, the more we turn from God, the more we refuse God, the more we move towards death. If we continue to refuse God, we will die. But, just so, the more we live in and for and toward God, the more we participate in true life.  Jesus dies for us because our disobedience and dishonoring of God separate us from God, the source of all life and so they naturally lead to physical and spiritual death.

The other ways of talking about the cross, in terms of law and guilt or in terms of shame and honor, are just how this more fundamental reality of life in God and death outside of God gets played out in human culture and history. Jesus heads to Jerusalem in order to enact a judicial reconciliation on our behalf. Though he is innocent, he is condemned to die. And heads to Jerusalem in order to enact a relational reconciliation on our behalf. Though he has honored God fully, he is subjected to the utmost of humiliations and he is abandoned, exiled by all. But more fundamentally, Jesus goes to Jerusalem to enact an ontological reconciliation. He experiences separation from God, death and hell on our behalf. His death is the cost of our reconciliation with God.

But there is yet another cost to reconciliation. Jesus goes to the cross to pay our cost of death in order to reconcile us to God, but as the Christ, Jesus is not only our representative to God, he is God’s representative to us. Think again of your falling out with your friend, and take again the side of someone who has been sinned against. For reconciliation to happen the one who has sinned has to die in some sense, but so too the one who was sinned against. If you have injured me, I have a claim upon you. I have a right to extract a cost from you. But if I accept your apology, if I extend mercy to you, I give up my right to extract from you the full cost of reconciliation. I, in a sense, die to myself, a give up a right in order to have mercy on you.

Jesus goes to the cross as our representative in order to die on our behalf, but Jesus is also God’s representative to us. More so, Jesus is the Word made flesh. He is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. He goes to the cross on behalf of the Father and the Spirit and dies for them. God thus accepts Jesus’ death for our death. The death of Jesus on the cross is not just the Father sacrificing his own Son, it is the Triune God giving up the payment we owe him for our disobedience and for the shaming of his name. On the cross Jesus dies on behalf of the Father and the Spirit to bring about their reconciliation with us. The cost of reconciliation, even for God, is death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

And that leads me to my final point: if the cost of reconciliation is death, what is purchased through death is not just reconciliation, but new life, resurrection life. What is purchased and then given by Christ is eternal life in the presence of God. For Jesus taught his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem to suffer many things, to be killed and on the third day to be raised to life. And he said, “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty and loving God, we praise you for the gift of your Word. We pray for the grace to lose our lives for the sake of Christ so that we may find ourselves reborn to life everlasting in him. Amen.

[1] This story is a reworking of a story written by Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (New York: Dell, 1989).

August 27, 2017 On this Rock
(Matthew 16:13-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have something to show you. What is this? It’s a rock, of course.  Now what can you tell me about rocks. If you were to describe a rock, how would you describe it? Hard. Heavy. Not easily moved. Not bendable. Hard to break. …

So if I wanted to name this rock, what might be a good name for a rock? .… How about any of the adults? … Well I think a good name for a rock would be Peter, because Peter is the Greek word for Rock.

Do you know the apostle Peter from the Bible? He had another name. Sometimes he is called Simon. What stories do you know about Peter? What kind of a person was Peter? … So Peter did a lot of great things. He was a leader in the early church. He was a missionary who spread the good news of Jesus. But when he was a disciple, he wasn’t always someone to look up to. Once he walked on the water, but he doubted Jesus. He didn’t have faith in Jesus so he began to sink into the water. And on the night when Jesus was arrested, Peter followed from a distance, but when people said that he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he denied it. Not just once, but three times. So Peter wasn’t always as hard and as strong as a rock, was he?

Well this morning we are going to read the story of when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter stepped forward and said that Jesus was the Christ. Now that was a brave thing to do because you could get into trouble saying something like that. But Peter was not afraid to say that Jesus was the Christ. And then Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Sometimes we think we have to be smart, or a perfect person who never does anything wrong, or a really brave person in order to serve Jesus. But Jesus said he was going to build his church on Peter, on Peter who was sometimes brave, but sometimes scared, sometimes filled with faith, but sometimes filled with doubt. So let me give you all a rock so that you can remember that Jesus can use someone like Peter who was not perfect, someone who was flawed to help build his church. Jesus can therefor use other people who are not perfect. People like you and me. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Imagine that you have fallen out with a good friend of yours. They have said some hurtful things about you. Maybe they have soiled your reputation. Maybe they have done so out of a misunderstanding or because they don’t know your whole story, but still there is no excuse for what they have done. You are hurt. You feel betrayed. You are angry. And you are sad. You still value their friendship. You still love them, but you can’t see how the relationship can continue with this rift that they have created.

But then one day your friend comes to you. He has come to apologize, to say that he was wrong, and to ask for your forgiveness. What will it take for you to know that he is indeed sorry?

I suppose there are many ways to indicate that you are sorry for something you have done. You can send someone flowers with a card. You could buy them a small gift as a token of your remorse. But nothing says, “I am sorry” like saying “I am sorry.” There is something about voicing the words, confessing that you were in the wrong, and asking to be forgiven that is weightier and in a sense more real than any gesture you can make. There is something about words that can make something you feel inside a more concrete reality. Saying “I am sorry” makes your repentance unequivocal and public and thus part of our shared reality. There is no better way to say “I am sorry” than to say “I am sorry.”

In the weeks and months ahead we are going to be looking at the concept of reconciliation. Ned asked me to see if I could choose a theme for the fall, so I looked at the lectionary texts and I thought that each week touched upon reconciliation in some way. You will be hearing more from Ned about how we as a church can think and read and discuss and engage with this theme of reconciliation in near future. So this morning we begin with what I believe is a key text on the theme of reconciliation. Jesus gathers his disciples and asks, “But what about you, who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says to him, “You are Peter, Petra, Rock, and on this petra, on this rock, on this confession, I will build my church.”

One could argue that this scene is the pivotal scene in the whole biblical story.  If the main narrative of biblical story is that of God seeking after humanity in order to reconcile humanity to him, then our text is the climax of that story. Each of the three gospel writers who include this story, Matthew, Mark and Luke, situate this story to be the pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. Before this the question has always been looming, “who is Jesus.” After Peter finally answers openly, “You are the Christ,” Jesus turns towards Jerusalem where he will live out what it means for him to be the Christ, that is, he will take up his cross and die.

Now certainly Jesus’ death and resurrection are key to our reconciliation with God, but when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he proclaim words of reconciliation. Humanity has fallen out with God because we have not recognized God as our King, as the one who deserves our love, our devotion, our obedience, our all. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, which mean the Anointed One, he is recognizing Jesus as the King of God’s people. He recognizes Jesus as the rightful representative of God himself, for the King represented God to the people. For Peter to confess Jesus as King was therefore to confess his allegiance, his loyalty, his obedience to God, and thus to be reconciled to God.

The irony of Peter’s confession is that he doesn’t know all that he is saying. The church later came to understand that Jesus was not only the Messiah and thus able to lay claim to the title “The Son of God,” but that he was also the literal son of God, the word of God made flesh, that Jesus was in fact God himself. Next week we will see that Peter could not fathom what being the Christ actually meant for Jesus, that it meant suffering humiliation and death. But even though Peter did not fully understand his own confession, Jesus says, “I tell you that you are Peter, Petra, and on this rock, this petra, I will build my church.”

This is the pivotal point in the whole biblical story for it is on this confession, that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is God’s appointed representative and that he thus not only represents but reveals who God is, it is on this confession that humanity is reconciled to God. For when we confess that Jesus is the Christ, we profess to him and to God our loyalty, our love, our devotion, and our obedience. And so it is through this confession, as Jesus says, that he will build his church.

The church, you see, is the gathering of those who have been reconciled to God. Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Our task as the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, that Jesus is the Christ, so that others may come to know and confess Christ and so be reconciled to God.

Now we should note that when we hear these words, this may sound to us as though God is restricting his grace and love and mercy. But the words binding and loosing on earth and heaven refer to the role of the Jewish rabbis in Jesus’ day. The rabbis, as they interpreted the laws of Moses and the traditions of the elders, were said to bind and loose. Through their interpretation of the Jewish laws they declared what people could and could not do and thus they defined who was in and who was out of the people of God. The binding and loosing was a determination of the boundaries of the people of God.

Jesus, however, takes this task away from the rabbis and the culturally and morally exclusive laws of the people of Israel. Now the gates of heaven and into the people of God, the church, are flung wide open for anyone can confess that Jesus is the Christ. Now the gates are open to Gentiles, to those deemed unclean by the law, and even to those who don’t always get their confessions right.

Jesus says that he will build his church on this petra. That is, I believe, both on the confession that Peter makes and on Peter himself, for Peter becomes a main figure and leader in the early church. And that is enormously gracious. Remember who Peter is and what Peter does. He is the bold and brave and courageous disciple who proclaims that he will never abandon Jesus even if he has to die, but yet denies Jesus three times. He is first one to proclaim Jesus the Christ, but then in the next moment Jesus calls him Satan. He is the one we hold up as having such great faith, but Jesus upbraids him as one of little faith. It is on this fallible, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, this doubting, denying, believing, following disciple that Jesus builds his church. And so he continues to build his church on the likes of you and me, those who are at times filled with faith and at times with doubt, at times obedient, at others wandering, those who timidly or bravely confess Jesus as the Christ.

And so the next thing to note about this confession is that it is a gift of grace. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Our reconciliation with God comes through the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but those of us who make that confession have no bragging rights over those who have not. Like Peter, we are all flawed confessors. We too are enabled to make the confession the Jesus is the Christ because this has been revealed to us out of the grace and mercy of God.

Now all of this begs the question, what of those who do not confess Jesus as the Christ? The other day I someone came to me and asked me this very question, and it is a question that needs to be asked. If the biblical story does in deed come to a climax in this scene, if the reconciliation between God and humanity turns on this confession that Jesus is the Christ, what about those who never confess Jesus as the Christ? Are they all lost? Do they have no hope of reconciliation?

I think we always ought to remember Shakespeare’s words which Portia says to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained” (IV,1). Simply because, by the grace of God, we have come to know and confess Jesus as the Christ and thus have come to confess our allegiance and obedience and love of God and thus have been reconciled to God, does not mean that the grace of God is limited to this confession. Through this confession God makes our reconciliation with him explicit. Through this confession we come to know God in Jesus Christ and a whole new way of living and a whole new relationship with God opens up to us. But that in no way means that God can’t be merciful with whomever he desires to be merciful.

It doesn’t mean that God can’t or isn’t merciful to those billions of people who grow up in places in which no one had ever even heard of Christ Jesus. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t merciful to the billions of human souls that have died in their mother’s womb before they were even born, or the billions of infants and young children that have died before they were even able to make conscious choices. We must never put such constraints on God’s grace. “The quality of mercy is not strained” for even the confession that we make comes out of and is enabled only by the grace of God.

But what then? Does that mean that the confession that Jesus is the Christ is meaningless? Are all people saved regardless of this confession?

In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr encourages us to live within a creative tension between law and grace, between structure and freedom.[1] He notes that while Jesus reinterpreted and in a sense transcended the Law, Jesus claimed that he did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it and bring it to completion. We have been reading about this in Romans, how we as Christians are not bound to the Law of Moses, but yet we are still called to fulfill the Law for the Law is summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (13:10).

But we Christians love to make new laws, and we do so by turning our doctrines and beliefs into new laws. We read Jesus saying, “On this rock I will build my church,” but then we insist on saying, “Only those who make this confession can be reconciled to God.”

But we are called to live within a creative tension. On the one hand we are called to hold on to the truth that those who confess Jesus as the Christ are reconciled to God. And we are called to proclaim this and teach this and live into this so that our reconciliation with God may be explicit and that we may be shaped and transformed by this confession, that is, so that we may shaped and transformed more and more into the image of Christ Jesus. We are called to hold onto all that is precious and life giving in this confession. And so we are called to build and grow and enable the church of Christ on and through this very confession. It is the rock on which the church is built.

But yet we must never seek to determine the limits of God’s grace and mercy. In the book of Exodus when Moses demands to see God’s glory, God responds, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (33:19). In other words, one aspect of the very name and identity of God is that he is mercy and he is compassion.

Who are we to put constraints on the mercy and grace of God? Rather, let us make his mercy and grace known. Let us make his grace a public reality my making our reconciliation with God explicit through our confession with our lips and through the witness of our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Lord God, you sent your one and only Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it, may our lips and our lives reflect our confession that Jesus the Christ, that he is the Lord of Life and the Savior of the world. Amen.

[1] Rohr, Falling Upward, 35.

August 20, 2017 A Memorial and a Name
(Isaiah 56:1-8; Matthew 15:21-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a forest of trees. Some of the trees had leaves shaped like this (maple), and some like this (oak), and some like this (etc.). They were all green during the summer, but then when the weather started turning, their leaves changed colors into red, orange and yellow. When winter came, their leaves fell off to the floor, but with spring they all got a new coat of leaves. Well there were other trees in the forest but they had needles instead of leaves this, and like this, and like this. They didn’t change colors and they didn’t lose them all in the winter. Because of this they thought they were much better than the other trees.

And so the two types of trees would argue and argue about who was really a tree, and who was a better tree, and what it meant to be a tree. Some insisted a true tree had to have leaves that change colors. Others insisted that a true tree had needles that stayed green during the winter.

But then one year a new kind of tree started growing in the forest. The trees with needles were glad because this tree had needles like them. But then when fall came along they noticed that the needles on the new tree started to change, and then they all started falling off. This caused a great stir among the forest as the trees began to argue again. Some thought this new tree couldn’t be a real tree because it had needles but they all fell off. Others thought it couldn’t be a true tree because it didn’t have leaves, but yet its needles changed color in the fall. What do you think, do you think this new tree was a real tree? Well, this tree looked like this. Has anyone seen something like this? That’s right, this is from a bald cypress and I cut it off the tree right outside the door of the church. This is from a real tree and it doesn’t quite fit in with the way most trees are like. It has needles instead of leaves, but they change color and fall off in the winter.

Sometimes we humans like to think one group of people is better than others. Maybe we think we are better than others because we have a certain skin color, or speak a certain language, or come from a certain country. But you and I know that God made us all, right? Whatever language or skin color or country we are from, we were all made by God and we are all loved by God. And God wants all people to love him and worship him. In the prophet Isaiah God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Sometimes we act like those tree in the forest and we get into silly arguments about who is the best type of human, but Isaiah saw a day when all people will worship God together. Won’t that be a great day? [end].

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After the White Nationalist, Neo-Nazi march last weekend in Charlottesville, communities across the United States have been moving to remove confederate monuments and statues. This is a good thing, and it is important that our society standup and denounce White Supremacy and all racist doctrines and movements, but we also must be wary that focusing on such things will take our eyes off of other, less obvious forms of racism, segregation and white privilege.

In a recent article in Politico Magazine Adam Goodheart reveals the history of the monuments and statues of confederate war heroes in the South.

[1] These monuments were erected across the southern United States in the mid 20’s when racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in response to a growing civil rights movement and to new waves if immigrants. But Goodheart notes that the speakers at the dedication of Lee’s statue in Charlottesville were not the Grand Dragons of the KKK, but the presidents of Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia. They praised the spirit and the ideals of General Lee. Goodheart concludes, “What Confederate monuments offered, by framing their purpose as a familiar lionization of war heroes, was a kind of white supremacism that everyone could rally around.”  In other words, you didn’t have to wear the white robe and hood of the KKK, but yet you could openly support white supremacism by honoring the spirit of General Lee.

The white nationalists and supremacists of today are acting in an environment much like when the confederate statues were erected. In response to the growing tensions over race and immigration, they are attempting to garner support for their views and to make their views a legitimate part of the political landscape. Even if they don’t gain huge numbers, their vocal and public presence may make less obvious forms of racism and white supremacy more tolerable. If we defeat the Nazis, we may think, then we are dealing with racism in our country.

Moreover, we ought to be aware of the theological foundations of the White Supremacist movement. The KKK and other groups were born with and out of the Christian churches in the south and they believe that America, and specifically white America, is God’s chosen nation. Establishing white supremacy, according to them, is a God-given task. We as Christians must therefore not only work against their racism, but also the exclusivist theology that many American Christians accept, the theology that America is in some way chosen and particularly blessed by God for the sake of his Kingdom.

Our texts this morning from Matthew and Isaiah offer us encouragement in opposing both racism and the broader exclusivist theology that undergirds it. Matthew urges us toward intentional acts of inclusion, while Isaiah challenges us to broaden the scope of our inclusion.

When a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus replies first through his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and then directly to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  These are perhaps some of the cruelest responses Jesus ever utters. We are shocked to hear Jesus call this poor woman and her daughter a dog. Let me suggest, however, that Jesus’ intention is not to insult the woman, but to shock the disciples and challenge their exclusivist theology in which Israel was God’s chosen nation that he would redeem while judging all the Gentile nations.

Jesus’ first response, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” is only partially true. Yes, Jesus spends most of his ministry in Galilee and to the people of Israel, but he frequently travels across the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. The Canaanite woman is not the first Gentile Jesus helps. Earlier in Matthew he heals the daughter of a Roman Centurion and he casts out demons from two men in the region of the Gadarenes, a Gentile territory.  We can’t take Jesus’ statement at face value for his actions speak otherwise. Let me suggest that he is bating the disciples. He is playing into their preconceived notions that God will redeem Israel, but judge the Gentile nations. The truth in the statement however, is left unsaid. If Jesus is sent to Israel, he is sent to Israel to fulfill Israel’s calling which is to be a blessing to the nations.

Jesus, you see, is deliberately breaking boundaries. In the previous passage in Matthew he refutes the fundamentals of Israel’s exclusivist theology. This is where Jesus says that someone is not made clean or unclean by what goes into the mouth, but by what comes out of the mouth. The cleanliness laws and holiness codes were the practical, on the ground applications of this exclusivist theology. By following them, righteous Jews demonstrated that they were God’s chosen people and the unclean, the sinners, and the Gentiles were not God’s people But Jesus teaches that cleanliness and uncleanliness are matters of morality, not ethnicity or following the culturally bound Laws of Moses and the traditions of the Elders. After refuting this theology, Jesus immediately supports this by traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Now, as I have said, Jesus has traveled to Gentile territory before, but that was into territory that was once a part of Israel. The region of the Gadarenes was won for Israel by King David. Tyre and Sidon, however, had always remained in the hands of the Phoenicians. Matthew highlights these details by making sure we know that this woman is not just a Gentile, but a Canaanite. She is a descendant of those pagans who were in the land when Joshua led the people across the Jordan River. And she recognizes this fact by calling Jesus “Son of David.” She recognizes Jesus as the Son of David even though he is outside of David’s territory.

Is it not possible, then, that Jesus’ words of rebuke are said with a heavy dose of sarcasm? The woman, after all, is not discouraged by Jesus’ first response, rather, she presses him directly. And after Jesus’ second response, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She takes his sarcasm and raises it to another level, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus therefore responds, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” This, you see, is Jesus’ aim. He has set up this scenario to demonstrate to the disciples that this pagan woman has “great faith.” He thus undercuts their exclusivist theology.

There are two other things to note about this story. The first is where and how Matthew places it in his narrative. Notice that after this Jesus goes back to the Sea of Galilee and miraculously feeds a crowd of 4,000. This mirrors the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 14. After the feeding of the 5,000 we have the story of Jesus walking on the water, and then Jesus’ teaching of about cleanliness and uncleanliness. We can see that his teaching that refutes the theology of exclusion is at the center of these 5 stories, but also that the story of Jesus walking on the water mirrors our text this morning. And when we compare and contrast these two stories we find Jesus proclaiming that a Canaanite woman has “Great faith,” while Peter, the bold and outspoken leader of the disciples, has “little faith.”

The second thing to note about this story is that this is only the second time Jesus has praised someone’s faith so highly. While Jesus frequently says that his disciples have “little faith,” the only person he praises for having great faith is another Gentile, the Roman Centurion. In fact, Jesus says, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Our text from Matthew therefore calls us not only to stand opposed to White Supremacy, but to be actively engaged in opposing all forms of racism and also all forms of exclusive nationalist theology. We must value, honor, and respect the humanity of each and every person regardless of race or ethnicity. We must teach that God loves all people and does not favor America or any nation over any other. Now this can be done in many ways. We can start by making friends with those of other ethnic groups. We can also seek to place ourselves in environments in which we are not the dominant race so that we can gain a new perspective. We can be politically and socially active opposing public policies that entrench discrimination, segregation and white privilege. We can use whatever power we may have in our community and work places to create and maintain respect and just treatment of all people regardless of race and ethnicity. Certainly we all can’t do all things, but I am sure there is some place in each of our lives where we are called to be and act for racial reconciliation and against segregation, discrimination, white privilege, and nationalistic theology.

While our text from Matthew calls us to an intentional way of being and behaving, our text from Isaiah challenges us to broaden our scope of inclusion. I have already noted that God’s purpose for choosing Israel was always to bless not just Israel, but the nations. This purpose is obviously reflected in Isaiah 56:3, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’” God has always had his eye upon all the nations even when he choose Israel to be his holy people.

But what about the other group in this passage? Verse 3 continues, “And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.”  What about the eunuch? A eunuch, by the way, was a man who had been rendered incapable of having children. Let me suggest that Isaiah picks these two groups, foreigners and eunuchs, to address the two main forms of blessing and curse which run through God’s promises to Israel and to all humanity. The promises of land and of children.

These promises begin with God’s blessing upon humanity in Genesis 1. God gives the first humans dominion over the earth and tells them to be fruitful and multiply. Land and children in terms of curse and blessing then form the main sources of tension in the plot throughout Genesis and into the rest of the Old Testament. When Adam and Eve sin, they are cursed with pain during childbirth and difficulty in working the land. When Abraham is called by God, he is promised a land and children beyond counting. Abraham, Sarah and their descendants constantly battle barrenness and exile from the land. The story continues through the rest of the Pentateuch until Israel is a nation of great numbers poised to finally re-enter the Promised Land.

In Isaiah, however, God points us ahead to a day when his blessing of land will not be limited to Israel. Rather foreigners will be brought to the heart of the land. In verse 7 God says, “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.” That is, he will bring them to Mt. Zion in the heart of Jerusalem and into the Temple, the very place where God dwells with his people in the land. The blessing of Land, as in the beginning, will be for all humanity.

But what of the Eunuchs? God says of them in verse 5, “to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons or daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will never be cut off.” When God promised Abraham the land of Canaan and descendants, he also promised to make a name for him. Abraham’s name lived on in his descendants, but now God promises a name better than sons or daughters to those who cannot have sons or daughters. To say that eunuchs will have a name better than sons or daughters is to revolutionize the parameters of God’s blessings that had here-to-fore been realized in terms of having children. And so people that were left out of God’s blessing are now included.


God’s blessings, therefore, are not limited to or prescribed by human sexuality as they were in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we see that Paul broke down the walls of gender by working on equal footing with women and saying that in Christ there is neither male nor female. He also broke down the requirement of having children to have “progeny,” when he opened up service to God to those who remained celibate. Today we now know that gender itself is not so easily defined as simply male and female. Not all people are absolutely either male or female, there are some people whose gender blurs the definitions we have made and the “normal” categories of male and female don’t quite fit. But that does not make them less human or less an object of God’s grace and blessing.

Jesus teaching and actions, and the vision we find in Isaiah, challenge us to intentional actions to break down barriers that exclude people and to broaden our scope of inclusion. God’s blessings are not limited to any one nation or land or people. They are not prescribed by ethnicity or race or any other inherited characteristics. Cleanliness and uncleanliness are only defined by our morality, and all people, by the way, may be made clean by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. For each us only finds ourselves clean and in the presence of Jesus because he came over into our pagan territory to shed his grace upon us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Lord God, by the power of your Spirit,

Give us strength to live out the message we have heard today.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

[1] Adam Goodheart, “Regime Change in Charlottesville,” POLITICO Magazine, August 16, 2017,

August 13, 2017 The Heart of Faith
(Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:1-15) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever gone swimming with your parents, or maybe your grandparents? I remember swimming with Evan and Elise on vacation. They would be happy for a little while playing in the shallow end of the pool, but then they would want me to take them into the deep end of the pool. So they would stand on the edge of the pool and I would stand in the deep end of the pool, and then they would jump into my arms. Have you ever done that with your mom or your dad?

So I wonder if you would be willing to do that with someone who isn’t your mom or your dad. Maybe your grandparents, an aunt or an uncle? But what about someone else? Would you just jump into the arms of anyone? Maybe you will jump into the arms of someone you and your parents know really, really well, but you aren’t going to jump into the arms of a stranger or someone you just met. Right?

Jumping into the arms of your parents is sort of what faith in God is like. You will jump into your parents’ arms because you trust them. You believe that they will catch you. You believe that you are safe with them. And there are other things you do because you trust your parents. You obey them and listen to them because you believe that they love you and know what is best for you. That is what faith in God is like. When we have faith in God, we trust him. We believe that we are safe with him. And because we trust God and believe we are safe with him, we behave in certain ways. When we trust in God, we obey him because we believe that his ways are the best ways for us. So if you ever wonder about your faith in God, remember jumping into the hands of your parents, and then imagine yourself jumping into the hands of God. [End sermon]

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After Jesus feeds the 5,000 plus all the women and children, he sends his disciples to the other side of the lake, he dismisses the crowd, and he goes off by himself to pray. As the disciples make their way across the lake, they have a bad time of it. The wind picks up and the waves start crashing against the boat, tossing it up and down and all around. Several of them have lived their whole lives on this lake. They are no stranger to the dangers of sailing. They know what they are doing, but yet they are in danger. All night they battle the wind and the waves.

Shortly before dawn Jesus comes to them walking on the water. They may have been afraid for their lives because of the wind and the waves, but now they are terrified. They think Jesus is a ghost.  “Take courage,” Jesus calls out, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replies, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

On Friday night a group of white supremacist protesters marched onto the campus of Virginia University in Charlottesville. The city council recently voted to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Meanwhile groups opposing the white supremacists staged their own counter rallies. This led to physical clashes on Friday night and more on Saturday. The violence culminated with a white man from Ohio driving his car through a group of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19.

I don’t know about you, but events like this sometimes feel like the wind whipping around me causing the waves of the sea to crash up against me. They cause me to fear for this country. They cause me to fear for the church. The cause me to fear for the world. They make me wonder, “Where is God?”  How can God allow such hatred and violence to persist? And then, of course, I begin thinking of all those places in the world where the violence and misery make the clashes in Charlottesville look like a Sunday picnic.  Aleppo, North Korea, Mosul, and the list could go on.

Perhaps it is the fact that there are so many people who call themselves Christians who stand with and behind the white supremacists that Charlottesville disturbs me so much. Perhaps it is the number of Red, Make America Great Again hats that were worn at the rally and the fact that so many Evangelicals are wearing the same hat that I have begun to wonder, “Where is God?” Many of these people call themselves God’s people, yet they are filled with hate and fear of those whose skin is a different color, or who speak a different language.

It is at times like this that I, like Peter, want God to plainly show himself. “God, if you are there, make yourself known. Do something that will demonstrate that you exist. Then maybe people will come to believe in you. Then maybe people will learn to follow in your ways and love their neighbors as themselves. Maybe then they will see that love and not hate is the answer. Then they will see that Jesus died on the cross to put an end to hate and violence.”

Maybe my doubts stem in part from this feeling that my faith just doesn’t measure up. I doubt because my faith is not strong enough. I doubt because I am weak. If I had faith like Peter’s, I think, if I could trust Jesus enough to walk on water … “Maybe,” I think, “the problem isn’t God. Maybe the problem is my own lack of faith. Maybe the problem is that we all lack faith as strong as Peter’s. Maybe we should all hear these words of Jesus crashing down on us like a Father’s rebuke, “O you of little faith, why do you doubt.”

In that old Gospel Hymn, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” we sing, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’”  While the hymn tries to assure us that we don’t have to be super-apostles like Peter or Paul to be faithful to Christ, I think we often sing to ourselves, “If I only had faith like Peter, if I only worked hard like Paul.” For some reason many of us have a sad taste for guilt. We feel guilty that we are not as robust in our faith as Peter and Paul. We feel guilty that we have doubts about God. And then we feel even more guilty because that just reveals the weakness of our faith. 

But what if Jesus’ words are not an announcement of judgement, but an expression of sorrow and pity? What if Jesus is saying, “Why did you doubt? I am here. Do not be afraid.” And what if we have misread this passage our whole lives?

We look at Peter walking on the water and we think, “What great faith he had.” But that is not what Jesus says to him. Jesus says to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” And when did Peter doubt? Look closely at the text. Yes, he obviously doubts when he looks at the wind and the waves as he is walking on the water. But that is not the first time he doubts. When Jesus says, ““Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” Peter doesn’t quite believe him. He says, “Lord, if it is you. … If it is you, if you are who you really say you are, prove it. Tell me to come to you on the water.” We don’t ask those we believe to prove themselves, only those we doubt. Peter’s act of walking on the water was not an act of faith. It was an act of doubt. More so, it is an act of putting Jesus to the test like Gideon’s fleece. And that is good news for us. We do not have to walk on the water like Peter to have faith.

Faith, you see, is at one and the same time one of the easiest things in the world and one of the hardest things in the world for us. It is as easy as falling into the hands of a loving God. But it is also as difficult as falling into the hands of God. Falling itself takes no effort, but allowing ourselves to fall can be terrifying.

In Romans chapter 10, Paul speaks of the nature of our faith in Christ Jesus. All throughout Romans Paul has been tackling the issue of how is it that God’s people are no longer determined by following the Law of Moses, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ. Some seem to be asking, “Is God turning his back on Israel?” “If faith in Christ is the key, what then of the Law? Is that no longer important? And if the Law is no longer important, what then of the people of Israel?”

Paul’s answer throughout Romans has been consistent. He has argued that those who insist that the Law of Moses is necessary or key to our relationship with God have misunderstood the role of the Law and the role of faith in the story of Israel. Remember Paul as in so many of his letters is arguing against those Jewish Christians who insist that in addition to faith in Christ, Gentile Christians must also be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be right with God. But Paul argues that faith was always the key to Israel’s relationship to God. In 4:3 he notes that Abraham was justified by faith centuries before the Law was given.

In 10:3, Paul speaks about those who have misunderstood the role of the law and faith in Israel’s story. “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  God’s people have always been saved, they have always been brought into a right relationship with God, which is to say they have always been made righteous, through the acts of God. That is God’s righteousness. God shows himself to be righteous by being gracious and loving and faithful to his people. To “submit to God’s righteousness,” is to trust in the goodness and grace and mercy and love of God. It is to fall into the arms of God.

In verse 5, then, Paul talks about the true role of the Law of Moses in the story of Israel. “Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’” Paul quotes Leviticus 18 in which God tells the Israelites not to live like the Egyptians, whom they have just been rescued from, and to not live like the Canaanites, to whose land Moses is leading them. Rather, they are to follow God’s Law, to live by God’s ways, and thus distinguish themselves as God’s people, as those who are distinct from people who follow other gods.

So Paul can talk about a kind of righteousness that the Law brings. It is the kind of righteousness that we probably first think of when we think of righteousness. A righteous person is someone who does the right thing, is obedient, who follows the laws. God gave Israel his law as a guide for his people to know how to live as his people. This law showed them how to be good and righteous people. It taught them how to be holy and just and so forth. The law led them into the fullness of life that God was giving them by saving them. The Law was never intended to be the means by which God’s people were to be made right before God. That was all God’s doing. He saved them and brought them into a relationship with him by his grace. Righteousness, a right relationship with God, was always by grace through faith. God gave Israel the Law so that they might demonstrate their righteousness, that they might continue to live out of the righteousness God had given them.

But even so, the Israelites complained that God’s Law was too difficult for them. So in Deuteronomy Moses says, “No, it’s not too difficult for you. You don’t have to go up to heaven to get it. You don’t have to cross the sea to get it.” “No,” he says, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. … For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”  The word Moses speaks of is love. Obedience to God is not difficult if you love God. Obedience flows out of love. If you recognize the grace God has shown you, if you, as Paul says, know the righteousness of God, that he has been faithful and gracious and loving to you, then you will submit to that righteousness and love God in return. And if you love God, then you will want to please him and obey him.

Paul thus plays off this passage in Deuteronomy in our text from Romans to say the same things about faith. “The righteousness that is by faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).”  I don’t know about you, but I always found this passage confusing, but it makes sense if you recognize that Paul is playing off the passage from Deuteronomy.

Our righteousness comes through the acts of God in Christ Jesus. We are made right with God because on the cross Christ died to the sin that alienated us from God and through his resurrection he overcame the powers of sin and death that separated us from God. We are made righteous by the acts of God, but it is our faith that demonstrates that righteousness. And faith is not difficult, for our faith is in Christ. We don’t have to perform some great feat like climbing up to heaven to find Christ. We don’t have to journey to the depths to bring Christ up from the dead. We don’t have to walk on water.

If we have faith in him, if we trust in him, then, as Paul says “the word is in your mouth and in your heart.”  If we confess with our mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” we are making a faith commitment to Jesus. We are saying that he is the one we will follow and obey and trust, not any other. We will not put our trust in any other Lord, be it the President of the United States or the CEO of Microsoft. And if we believe that God was able to overcome the powers of sin and death by raising Jesus from the dead then Christ is, in a sense, in us. He is not far. He is in our hearts and on our lips.

Faith is not something we must grab after or obtain by heroic feats. It is the easiest thing for it is trusting in what God has done. It is easiest for through it we trust that Christ has done all that is necessary for the salvation of the world. There is nothing more or less that we can do. It takes no effort on our part, for Christ has shouldered the cross for us and for the world.

But yet faith also seems like one of the most difficult thing to have. It seems difficult for to truly trust in Christ is to bear witness to him by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. God gave Israel the Law of Moses so that they might demonstrate their righteousness in God. Christ came, as Paul says in verse 4, to be the end of the law, that is, in order to fulfill the law. And, as Paul says in 13:10, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” To have faith in Christ, then, is to live out of the same love he had for the world. It is to love one's enemies, to bless those who curse you, to turn the other cheek, which is an act of nonviolent resistance, and to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

My friends, if you feel battered and beaten by the winds of hatred and the waves of violence blowing across this land, listen to Jesus, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.”  And listen to Paul, Christ is not far, “the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Fall into the arms of God. Confess Jesus as Lord. Have faith that God raised him from the dead. And then allow Christ who is in you to live out of you so that you may love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, that you may love your neighbor as yourself, and even so that you may love your enemies. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence – A prayer for peace by Brother Rogers of Taizé:

Lord Christ, at times we are like strangers on this earth, taken aback by all the violence, the harsh oppositions. Like a gentle breeze, you breathe upon us the Spirit of peace. Transfigure the deserts of our doubts, and so prepare us to be bearers of reconciliation wherever you place us, until the day when a hope of peace dawns in our world. Amen.

August 6, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
July 30, 2017 Ubervictorious
(Romans 8:28-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do your parents love you? How do you know that they love you? They care for you, providing you with food and clothing, a house to live in, etc. They tell you they love you. So let’s say you were to fall down and hurt you knee. What would your parents do? They would hold you. They would bandage it up. But they would also feel sorry for you. One of the surest ways that we can tell that our parents love us is that they feel sorry for us when we are hurt or bad things happen to us. You know what. As a parent, I can tell you that when something bad happens to Evan or Elise, sometimes I feel so bad for them that I wish that I could take their place. I wish was the one who was hurt instead of them.

So how do you think we can tell that God loves us? He cares for us. Provides everything we need to live for us. But most of all, we can tell that God loves us because he came to us in Jesus in order to experience the same bad things that happen to us. More than that, he came to us and died on the cross for us.

I wonder if any of you know a song about how God loves us. Maybe we can sing it together. Jesus Loves Me (#709) [end]

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You are standing in the funeral home. Friends and relatives from all over have come to pay their respects. You are deeply sad and maybe a bit confused and angry. You don’t understand why she had to die. Or maybe you have just received news that you have cancer.  Or maybe you have just opened a letter letting you know that the job you so much desired has been offered to someone else. IN the midst of your sorrow and pain, another Christian comes up to you and says, “You know, ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:25).

At this point in time, you are not sure that you do know this. You certainly don’t feel it. Just trying to think about how something good will come of this just makes you angry. What you do know is that the person means well. They do not realize how incentive they are being or how trite they sound. So you bite your tongue, smile, and say, “Thanks.”

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:25). I imagine many of us have taken great comfort in this verse. When we as Christians go through a difficult time, we might turn to this verse for assurance. By this verse we may be assured that no matter how bad things are or how bad things might get, God has our back. God is able to turn whatever evil we face, or whatever suffering we go through, to good.

I also imagine that just as many of us have been offended by someone else quoting this verse to us when we are going through a period of suffering. Too often Christians quickly dismiss the suffering and pain of others by trying to offer consolation with some theological truth. If someone is suffering, it is best to first sit with them, listen to them, and pray with them in their suffering. If we too quickly try to console someone by saying that God will somehow turn their suffering into good, it will probably come out sounding very trite and dismissive of their experience. It may be true, but sometimes we are not able to see such truth in the midst of our suffering, let alone be comforted by it. So it is one thing to draw comfort from this verse yourself, but we might want to be careful in how easily we offer it to someone else for their comfort.

There is, however, another reason we ought to be careful in how we use this verse. We often pull this verse out of its context and interpret it in ways that don’t really fit the context at all. We should ask ourselves, Is Paul really talking about suffering in general? Is it right for us to use this verse as a source of comfort for any sort of suffering we may experience?

If you look in the church bibles you will notice that there is a footnote that offers two other translations. It is possible to translate this verse, “all things work together for good to those who love God.” This second option is a bit troubling because it sounds rather pagan. Fate, it seems, is working in all things for those who love God. “All things” just sort of conspire together for the good of those who love God. Is that what Paul believes? Well, in verse 29 God is the subject. God is the one who predestines and calls and justifies and glorifies. As in the first translation, a better translation of verse 28 will therefore have God as the subject.

The third option then is this: “We know that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good.” I prefer this translation because God is the subject and the verb is “works together.” The first translation just says that God works, but the Greek word is sunergo, from which we get synergy. It means not just to work, but to work together.  And finally this third option fits better with the context of the passage. “And we know that in all things God works together with those who love him  to bring about what is good, those who have been called according to his purpose.” God works together with those who are called to work towards his purpose.

Let’s put this in the larger context of the chapter. Paul begins by talking about what we call our “salvation” in the first third of the chapter. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But Paul immediately moves from what we call salvation,” to what we call “sanctification.” In Christ we are joined to the Spirit of Christ. We begin to leave behind the sinful nature and to have our minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5). Last week we saw that Paul then talks about the purpose of our salvation and sanctification. In Christ we are heirs of God and so take up our original calling as stewards of the creation. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” when it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glory and freedom of the children of God.”

The context is that we are working with God for his purposes. Paul sums this all up nicely in verses 29 and 30: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” We are heirs with Christ, image bearers of God who represent God’s authority in and over the creation. “And those he predestined, he also called;” We have a task, and obligation to fulfill, to work with and for God’s purposes. “and those he called, he also justified;” There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.  “And those he justified, he also glorified.” Like Jesus, our co-heir who now reigns in heaven, we too are bound for glory.

But the way to glory is not very glorious. Paul says in verse 17 that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Just as Jesus’ path to glory was only through the suffering of the cross, so too we can only participate in his glory if we participate in his suffering. Paul writes our passage this morning not to comfort us in whatever form of suffering we may encounter. He is not talking about generic suffering. He comforts us as we share in the suffering of Christ Jesus. He comforts us by saying that “we know that in all things God works together for the good with [us], those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”

But what does it mean to share in Christ’s suffering? Well, let’s think about the ways in which Christ suffered. The first and most obvious way Christ suffered is the cross. Jesus came and proclaimed the Kingdom of God and he demonstrated it’s presence by healing the sick and casting out demons. This angered the religious elites and the politicians because it challenged their view of God’s kingdom and also their authority. So they crucified him. We participate in Christ’s suffering when we proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in word and deed and suffer because of it. The good news of God’s Kingdom turns the ways of the world, the ways of power and positon and prestige on its head. This will inevitably put those who proclaim the good news of the Kingdom in conflict with religious, political, and economic authorities and will result in suffering. That is one way we participate in Christ’s suffering.

Second Christ also suffered by identifying with the poor and powerless, with the outcasts and “sinners” of this world. When we work for justice for the poor, when we stand in solidarity with immigrants, or with Black Lives Matter, when we befriend the outcasts of today’s society, when we suffer with those who are suffering, we participate in the suffering of Christ because that is how and why he suffered.

Jesus identified himself particularly with those who were shunned by society, but on a more basic level he simply identified with all humanity. He took on our flesh with all the weakness and vulnerability that entailed. He therefore suffered in all the everyday ways in which we suffer. He cried at funerals. He suffered when people close to him became sick. How often do you read that Jesus looks upon someone who has come to him for help and has compassion for them. The Greek term most often used means that he felt for them in his gut, in his stomach.

And so Jesus suffered in all the ways you and I suffer in this broken world, but with one important caveat. He suffered while knowing the love of God deep, deep down in his gut. You see, Jesus was able to suffer in all these ways because he knew what Paul is trying to tell us. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Jesus knew that the very foundation of his being was in God. He knew that the very foundation of God is love. He knew that he could face whatever life and even whatever death brought to him because the God upon whom and in whom all things exist could overcome all things even death itself. He knew that God could work in all things for good, turning all suffering and evil to his ultimate, good and beautiful purposes. And so Jesus worked with God in this by becoming human and suffering with us while trusting in the goodness and the love of God.

You see, it is this trust and faith that enabled Jesus to become human and experience all the suffering we experience in the first place. It is this trust and faith that enabled Jesus to look upon the sinners and tax collectors and declare before the religious authorities that yes, even these were precious children of God. It was this faith and this trust that enabled Jesus to turn away from the worldly path of power and prestige and to take up the cross to demonstrate that the love of God is the most powerful force in the world. It is this trust and faith in the love of God that enabled Jesus to suffer as a human, with the outcasts, and on the cross for the sins of the entire world.

We therefore suffer with Christ, we participate in his suffering when we receive this same love of God and thus are able to have the same faith and trust in God as Christ, for then we suffer in the same way as Christ. We suffer not as those who have no hope. We suffer not as those going down to defeat, but, as Paul says in verse 37, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  The Greek word Paul uses here is upernike.  Nike, like the shoe brand, Nike, means victory. From uper, we get the German word uber, and the English words over and hyper. It can mean over and above, greater than and more than. In all these things we are ubervictorious. We are more than victorious. Knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus, who suffered with us and died for us, but was raised from the dead, knowing that love, nothing can overcome us. We are ubervictorious. We are more than victorious because nothing as Paul says can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In our gospel lessons this week and the previous weeks we have read of how the Kingdom of God comes not by some splashy show of power. The Kingdom of God does not come with a shock and awe show of force. It comes like a man sowing seed. The kingdom comes like a woman adding yeast to the dough. It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant bush. I believe that the way Christians suffer, the way we suffer with those who are oppressed, the way in which we bear up under suffering when proclaiming the good news, and the way in which we suffer the ordinary pains of life is much like the seeds of Jesus’ parable. It is quiet and unassuming. It bears witness to the very power of life, the love of God, and so it grows and provides space for life. The way we suffer points to the hope that we have in the Kingdom of God. The way we suffer re-presents the truly shocking and awesome power of God and his Kingdom, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It demonstrates God’s power to bring life out of death. Friends, we can take comfort when we suffer and as we suffer with Christ in this: in all things God works together in and through us for good, that is, for the coming of his Kingdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, help us to truly know you and the love of God that you came to instill in our hearts so that we may participate in your suffering and so also participate in your eternal glory. In your name we pray. Amen

July 23, 2017 The Pains of Childbirth
There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have something very precious to show you. This is a very precious book. It is a Bible and it is written in Dutch. Actually it is just the New Testament and some Psalms, and it also has some hymns in it as well. Now this book is precious to me first of all because it is very old. It was printed in 1779. That makes it almost as old as the United States, about 240 years old. And second, it is precious to me because it belonged to a girl named Lena Duitman. Lena was born in 1852, so my guess is that this was owned by her mother, and maybe her grandmother.

Now Lena Duitman was my grandfather’s grandmother. That makes her my great-great-grandmother. So this Bible is precious to me because when I look at it, I am reminded that the faith I have in God and in Jesus was something that was handed down from generation to generation for many generations in my family. It reminds me of how all my grandparents and their grandparents, and their grandparents loved the same God I do. It reminds me that God was faithful and is still being faithful to them because he is faithful to me.

This book is precious to me because it reminds me of my greatest inheritance. An inheritance is usually money or land or a house that your parents, or maybe your grandparents leave to you when they die. It would be something if my parents or grandparents had been really rich and that I could look forward to an inheritance of lots of money, or maybe a mansion someday. But they are not really, really rich. And even if they were, the greatest thing, the most precious thing they can leave to me is their faith in God. That is worth more than all the riches they ever owned.

My guess is that your parents would agree with me. If they could give you anything in the world, I bet they would choose their faith in God. That is the most precious inheritance that your parents can pass on to you. Maybe you can ask your parents if you have something at home like this Bible that can help you remember that. Or if you don’t, maybe you can together choose something, like a special Bible that you all read from, to help you remember your most precious inheritance. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In our text from Romans, Paul talks about our inheritance.  In the Children’s sermon I spoke about faith as an inheritance. That may have ruffled some theological feathers because we Christians like to argue about the nature of faith but we don’t often speak of faith as being something we inherit. It probably sounded strange for me to say that parents can give their faith to their children. But I would like to talk about faith as inheritance because it can help us understand the nature of inheritance.

When we talk about faith, some Christians emphasize that faith is a gift. Paul clearly says it several times in his letters and Jesus says no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again from above through the Holy Spirit. Other Christians, however, will emphasize the fact that faith is something that we must be active in. We must believe. We must trust. It is our faith.

And this is why seeing faith as inheritance is helpful. An inheritance is a gift that is passed down from one generation to the next that entails an obligation. If a child inherits an estate from her parents, it is a gift they bestow on her that entails that she take up the responsibility of running the estate. The gift entails a stewardship. A faithful reception of the gift entails a faithful use and preservation of the gift.

Faith is an inheritance because it is a gift that entails an obligation. It is given to us, engendered in us, as a gift of grace by the Holy Spirit, but we must receive it. We must own it. We must nurture it. The gift of faith entails a stewardship of that faith.

But faith is also an inheritance because it is passed on from parents to children. This should not shock us or make us think that Pastor Tim has forgotten about grace or that it is a gift from God. God made humanity a social community. We are born into families and clans, and we inherit not just property from our family, but our way of looking at the world, both good and bad habits, and our culture. It is not surprising then that faith is something that is passed on. God gives us the gift of faith not only through the Spirit, but also through the ways in which he himself created the world. And part of our obligation, part of our stewardship of that gift is to pass it on to our children. And part of our obligation of that gift is to receive it from our parents.

Now Paul talks about another inheritance. Last week we talked about how through Christ we are saved by being freed from the realm of the flesh, or the sinful nature, and brought into the realm of the Spirit. Now some Christians have understood Paul’s language as supporting a certain Platonism, a dualism that sets the spiritual over against what is material, as if the material was lesser than the spiritual, or even that the material is evil and the spiritual is good. Paul, however, immediately turns to speak of our inheritance and this should put to rest any sense of such dualism.

But first, let me clarify. When Paul uses the term “flesh”, he occasionally means just our physical bodies or our physical existence. But he most often means our existence corrupted by sin. The NIV thus correctly translates and interprets the term “flesh” here as “the sinful nature.” In verse 12 Paul says since we have been saved, that is brought into the realm of the Spirit by being united with Christ, “we have an obligation - but it is not to the flesh, the sinful nature, to live according to it.” He leaves it unsaid, but the implication is that our obligation is to live by the Spirit. Since we have been saved by the Spirit from the realm of the sinful nature, our obligation is to stop living in the realm of the sinful nature and to start living in the realm of the Spirit. Do you hear the overtones of an inheritance? Salvation is a gift that entails an obligation.

So what then does it mean to live in the realm of the Spirit? Does it mean to leave the realm of the physical behind and live more into the realm of the spiritual? Should we stop thinking about the mundane things of this world and start thinking about our spiritual existence in some future heaven? Absolutely not, for Paul continues in verse 14, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  He continues to relate how we were slaves to sin, but now we have been adopted as sons. The difference between a slave and a son is that the slave has no claim upon the master’s estate, but a son inherits the estate. Vs. 17: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

So we are heirs, but what is it that we inherit? Verse 18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed … the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Our inheritance is the creation. To live into the realm of the Spirit is to live into our obligation as those created in the image of God. To live into our salvation is to be what God created us to be in the beginning, faithful stewards of the creation. We are saved by the grace and mercy of God in order to fulfill our obligation to be faithful stewards of the creation, that part of our inheritance that is passed down from one generation to the next. 

If you know the story of Israel, you can see that Paul is retelling the story of Israel as it is now fulfilled for all humanity in Jesus Christ. Israel was enslaved to Egypt, but God freed Israel. He saved them and, adopted her as his chosen people, and called them his son. He then brought them to the land of Canaan and gave it to them as an inheritance – a gift that was passed down from generation to generation that entailed an obligation. And that obligation was to live by God’s law to demonstrate the ways of peace and justice so that the nations might come to know God.

In Romans 4:13 Paul hints that this story of Israel is but a reflection of the broader story of humanity. He says, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” You see, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, but Paul recognizes that this promise was just a seed. That seed of a promise for the tiny land of Canaan contained the promise for the world, which in the Greek is the cosmos. In our passage the inheritance becomes the whole creation.

Thus in 4:16 Paul sees that the promise made to Israel was a seed that contained God’s promise to all humanity. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only those who are of the law [that is Jews] but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [that is Gentiles who receive the promise through faith]. The point is that Israel was always meant to be the precursor for all humanity. All humanity may receive the gift of salvation through faith, and that salvation is not liberation from this physical realm, but it is a liberation to live into our inheritance, to live in the creation in a new way in and through the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh.

I began this sermon talking about faith as inheritance. Now we can see that salvation is, in a sense, an inheritance. Salvation is not, as some would have it, mere fire insurance, a ticket to heaven in the afterlife, salvation from an eternity in hell. Salvation is not an escape from physical existence into a heavenly spiritual realm. With our salvation we receive something passed down from generation to generation. For Israel that was the land. For us it is the created world. Salvation therefore entails an obligation. Through our salvation we are restored to our original purpose – to be stewards of this creation, to rule over it, to tend it and care for it so that future generations can have a fruitful life.

Salvation is an inheritance because it is also a gift from God. While the land of Israel was passed down from generation to generation, Israel understood that the land itself was also a gift from God. But the gift of salvation includes not only the physical gift of the creation, but the spiritual gift of a restored relationship with God. It thus includes a spiritual reality.

The spiritual gift is that God did in Christ what humanity failed to do. Christ remained faithful to God yet he died to sin on the cross and was raised to new life. And so in Christ we are redeemed from the spiritual bondage of sin and brought into the spiritual freedom of righteousness, the freedom that comes with living in a right relationship with God, the freedom that comes with living in tune with the way God created us and the world. In Christ then, we are being transformed and thus enabled to fulfill our calling as stewards of creation because in Christ we are living more and more into righteousness and justice and peace. At least that is the hope and the vision. Thus our destiny in not only to care for the creation but to become agents of its liberation. Paul says “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … [for] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

So we can talk about salvation as an inheritance for it is a gift of God that entails an obligation for that which is passed on from one generation to the next. What then is the nature of that obligation? How are we to fulfill our obligation? It is to live in righteousness, by the ways of God’s mercy, justice and love. But let me suggest that suffering plays a key role in the nature of our obligation for suffering is an inherent part of any inheritance. If you receive an inheritance it is probably a bitter sweet reception. If you receive an inheritance it usually means that someone has died. An inheritance entails suffering.

And so we should not be surprised to find that when Paul talks of our inheritance, it is laced with suffering. “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (17-18, 22-23).

Now it is dangerous for a pastor to talk about suffering, for everyone’s experiences suffering differently. My pain is not your pain, and your pain is not mine. I cannot hope to understand your suffering. And anything I say about suffering may come off as trite or unsympathetic. And I risk being understood as saying that God has inflicted suffering on you, or that God has caused your suffering. But I do not mean to say that. But Paul says we will only share in the glory of Christ if we also share in his suffering.

What I think the biblical story teaches us about suffering is, first of all, that suffering is inevitable. Death and suffering are written all over the pages of the creation. There would be no life on this planet if plants and animals didn’t die. Most plants and animals produce many more offspring than those that actually make it to maturity. And even among humans there are far more miscarriages than we ever hear about. The biblical story faces suffering head on. There is never any covering up or papering over suffering. The biblical story deals with suffering as part of our existence.

Suffering is inevitable, it is part of life at least in this age, and so, second, what the biblical story teaches us is that faith is a trust in God that believes in the goodness of God and in the goodness of creation even in and through suffering and death. Faith is a trust that there is a reality of goodness and life that is more fundamental than the reality of suffering and death.  The biblical story teaches us that suffering, evil, and death are all second order realities. They could not exist without a more basic reality. Suffering and evil and death are parasitic on the good creation. They are a corruption of a more fundamental reality.  And that fundamental reality flows out of what we call God.

The third thing the Biblical story teaches us is that God uses suffering to bring about our transformation. Faith enables us to see our suffering as the pains of childbirth, as suffering that will lead to new life in God. The God we believe in is the God of resurrection who brings life out of death and joy and peace out of suffering and pain.

And the fourth thing that the biblical story teaches us about suffering is that God is present with us in our suffering. We can participate in the sufferings of Christ because he first left he place in the heavenly realms, took on our flesh, and lived, suffered, and died with us. Christ is Immanuel, God with us. And so Paul ends this section of his letter saying in verse 26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

And so we fulfill our obligation to live as stewards of this creation not only by living into the righteousness, justice, mercy, and love of God, but also by enduring and experiencing the suffering of this world in a way that exhibits our faith in God. We share in the suffering of Christ as we endure suffering exhibiting a faith in the deeper reality of the goodness, love, power, and grace of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Eternal God, Author of our life and End of our pilgrimage:

Guide us by your Word and Spirit

amid all our pain and suffering,

that we may not be overcome by despair,

nor stumble in the darkness;

but may live in joy and hope live as your faithful disciples,

and do all things for your glory;

through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

July 16, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
July 9, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
July 2, 2017 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
June 25, 2017 Proclaiming Christ, Bearing our Cross
(Matthew 10:24-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I remember when my kids were a bit younger than some of you and maybe about the same as others of you, they said this one phrase a lot. “I can do it myself,” they would say. We would ask, “Do you need help getting dressed?”  “No. I can do it myself.” “Can I help you tie your shoes?” “No. I can do it myself.” “Here let me cut your meat up.” “No. I can do it myself.”

It feels good to learn how to do things yourself. And that feeling never goes away even as you get older. The other day our washing machine broke and I was just going to call a plumber to come and fix it, but Roxann told me to take a look at it first. So I looked up a couple of videos online about fixing broken washing machines and then I took our apart and found the broken piece. I bought a new piece and then put it all back together. It felt pretty good to learn how to do something new and to do it myself.

But there are still some things I bet that you like your parents to do for you. I liked that my mom cooked every day and always made dinner for us. I liked it that my dad was good at fixing things and if we ever needed something fixed, I liked that he would fix it for us. When your parents do things like that for you, it makes you feel loved and cared for, right?

Jesus once said, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39) When it comes to God, we are all still like little children. No matter how old we are, whether we are 5 or 10 or 20 or 80, we will always be like children to God. Like little children, we like to go through life saying, “I can do it myself.” We want to take control of our lives. But Jesus tells us that if we insist on making all our own decisions, saying, “I can do it myself” about our lives, then we will never truly live. We will lose our lives. But if we trust God with our lives, if we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, if we remain like little children before God, then we will find our lives. [End]

I imagine these instructions of Jesus to his disciples are some of the most difficult for many. There is something in here to upturn the pat religious mindsets of everyone. Those who find in Christianity a religion that has love and peace and harmony at its core will be jarred by these words: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Those who place a high value on traditional values won’t like what follows: “For I have come to turn: ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (34-36).

Jesus doesn’t seem to care much about family values or to hold the nuclear family in such an exulted position as many Christians do. There also seems to be something that he cares more about even than peace. What Jesus says is rather unsettling. In fact, Jesus is speaking about something that, if we are honest, disturbs each of us to the core.

Last week we looked at the beginning of this passage. We talked about how we often find evangelism offensive and how we are not comfortable doing evangelism because we know that others find it offensive. But Jesus looks out over the crowd of people who have come to hear him preach. They have come to have him touch them and heal them. They have come to have him cast out the demons that torment them. He looks out over the crowds who have come to him and he has compassion on them for he sees them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

And so what does he do? He summons twelve of his disciples and designates them as apostles, that is, as those who are sent for that is want “apostle” means. He then instructs them to go to the lost sheep of Israel proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and showing that the kingdom is coming by healing the sick and casting out demons. Evangelism does not need to be offensive because of any arrogance or superiority on our part. Our primary reason for engaging in evangelism is simply that we, like the apostles, have been sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Our motivation for evangelism comes not from our own sense of superiority, or because we are privileged and others need our charity. Our motivation is the compassion of Jesus. He wants all of his sheep to know him, their shepherd.

But yet there is still something unsettling about evangelism. While I mentioned that what Jesus and the apostles did was culturally appropriate, how they acted as though they were Prophets of Israel, Jesus goes on to say how many will not receive the good news proclaimed by the apostles as good news. Many will be offended by it. “On my account,” he tells them, “you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.”When they arrest you,” he tells them, “do not worry about what to say or how to say it.”Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (18-22).

Notice how an interesting shift occurs throughout the course of Jesus’ instructions. He begins by giving them instructions about proclaiming the good news to others, but then he begins talking about the apostles themselves. He tells them how they will be persecuted, and about how they might be saved. The object of salvation, in a sense, seems to shift from the lost sheep of Israel to the apostles themselves. One wonders if Jesus is talking about those to whom the apostles are sent or about the apostles themselves when Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (38-39).

For us today, what begins as a text that sends us out proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, turns to an invitation to reflect upon our own salvation. We may feel uncomfortable at the beginning as we worry about offending others by heeding Jesus’ call to evangelism. But, if we accept the invitation to reflect on our own salvation, we may become disturbed ourselves by Jesus’ words.

For if we stop to think about these words, we find that they are truly very challenging to us all. They challenge us because Jesus tells us that we have nothing to do with our own salvation. With life in general we like to be independent and autonomous. We live our lives saying, “I can do it myself.” And when it comes to religion, we tend to think of salvation as some sort of self-improvement project. Religion and “salvation” are things that we do or believe in life that help us to become better people, more enlightened people. They enable us to take a step higher the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Spiritual or Religious person is closer to being the Self-Actualized person than she who is still just concerned with her career, or with family. But Jesus says in order to find our life, our true life, in order to find salvation, we have to lose our life for his sake.

In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, 

Our salvation is "external to ourselves."  I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ. Only he who allows himself to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, is with God and God with him.[1]

Our salvation is “external to ourselves” because our salvation is found only in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

In Romans 6 the apostle Paul writes:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

Salvation is not a self-improvement project. It is a dying project, and it is a resurrection project. Bonhoeffer writes, “The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”[2] When it comes to our salvation, when it comes to our life with God, when it comes to our very lives, Jesus matters more than we do ourselves. That is not an easy truth to accept. If we are talking about our own salvation, if we are talking about our own lives, then isn’t it obvious that our lives are what really matter? Aren’t we front and center when it comes to our own salvation? But that is the rub. The answer is no. Our salvation, our true life begins in losing our lives to find them being taken up into the life of Christ. We therefore cannot direct our salvation. We cannot orchestrate it. We cannot determine it. The main role we have is in letting go, in dying to ourselves, in being found in Christ.

At the end of the movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor Dumbledore comes to have a talk with Harry. For those of you who don’t know Harry Potter, they have just learned that Lord Voldemort, the most evil and one of the most powerful wizards to have ever lived has just returned. Dumbledore and Harry know that they now face a great danger. Dumbledore says to Harry. “Dark and difficult times lay ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

The choices we face in life are not always so stark and obvious as between what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. The choices we face in life are more often between what is good and right and true and what is easy. We don’t have to do evil to be complicit with evil. We just have to mind our own business. We don’t have to tell lies to be complicit with falsehood. We just have to remain silent.

When it comes to our own lives and our very salvation, what is easy is to live your life saying, “I can do it myself.” What is true is that Jesus has come to gather all his sheep into his fold. What is easy is to live your life the way everyone else around us is living their life. What is true is that Jesus sends us out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. What is easy is go on living how we have been trained by our culture. What is true is that proclaiming the good news of the kingdom will be offensive to many. What is easy is to go on living your life with the illusion that you are in control of it. What is true is that “Only [those] who allow [themselves] to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, [which is to say, in his mission,] [are] with God and God with them.” What Jesus says is not easy, but it is true: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” It is not easy, but it is true and filled with grace, for in this we are found in Christ as his beloved sheep and given new life. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(St. Francis of Assisi)

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 54.

[2] Ibid.

June 18, 2017 Sheep without a Shepherd
(Matthew 9:35-10:8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there were two travelers who wanted to climb up a mountain. They climbed and climbed until they came to a cliff that rose high above their heads. The first traveler said, “Lucky for us, a strange man gave me a rope at the bottom of the mountain.” He pulled out his rope and threw it up the cliff. It was just long enough. First he and then the second traveler climbed up the cliff.

They continued climbing up and up until they came to a second cliff that rose up and up. The first traveler took out his rope and threw it up the cliff, but it didn’t reach the top. “Lucky for us,” said the second traveler, “I think that same strange man gave me a rope too when I started out on this journey.” She took out her rope and threw it up. It just reached the top and the two of them climbed up the cliff.

They continued climbing up and up the mountain until they came to a third cliff. They looked up the cliff and it kept going up and up and up and up. “Our ropes are not long enough,” said the one. “Even if we each had two and tied them all together. What are we going to do?” Just then a rope came tumbling down the cliff, the end landing just at their feet. They looked up to see that same strange man who gave them their ropes at the bottom of the mountain. They both climbed up and found that they were at the top of the mountain. And there sat the strange man, waiting for them.

Sometimes we as Christians think that we are somehow better than other people because we know Jesus.  We might think we are more special than other people because have the Bible that tells us about God. We might think God loves us more than other because we think we obey God better than others. We might sort of think we are like that second traveler. We have a longer rope. We think we can climb higher than others. Maybe we think we are closer to God than others because of all we know about God and all the ways we obey God.

But while we might know lots about God and about Jesus and about how he wants us to behave and what he wants us to believe because of the Bible, we are all like both of those travelers standing at the bottom of the high cliff. None of us can reach God, no one can climb up to God unless God reaches down to us. The only way we can reach God is by the rope of his love and his mercy that he throws down to us. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Every week I spend a couple of hours at the Champaign library working on my sermon. Lately when I have come out, there have been two ladies standing a little ways away from the entrance with a stand filled with pamphlets, newsletters and fliers. I avoid them like the plague. I know that they are probably engaging in some form of evangelism. They would love to talk with me about how I can be saved by believing what they believe. Maybe I could just take and read one of their pamphlets, then I might know the truth about God or Jesus or Heaven or whatever.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience. Maybe someone like this has knocked at your door. Maybe they have stopped you on the street. Maybe an acquaintance has invited you to a church picnic or a special event they are hosting. You cringe because you know that this is an attempt to evangelize you. They have some special knowledge about God. They know that they are saved, but they assume you are not. And so we find this behavior rather offensive, don’t we. Who are they to assume to know the state of my relationship with God?

Last week we heard Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This week Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the message, “The kingdom of God is near.” Evangelism, which literally means the proclamation of the good news, is obviously a key task or calling of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ main activity was evangelism. Over and over again the gospel writers summarize Jesus’ ministry in this way, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Most of the gospels, if you exclude the stories about Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection, simply expand on these summaries. Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and he demonstrates its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, and eating with tax collectors and sinners. Evangelism, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God, basically sums up the whole ministry of Jesus. And if evangelism was primary to Jesus’ mission, is it not primary to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus?

But we do not want to be that guy who offends others through evangelism, do we? We are uneasy with the posture we think we have to take to be an evangelist. Who are we to presume to know the state of another person’s soul, or the nature of their relationship with God?  Who are we to assume that we have a corner on God or that we possess something that we can share with those who don’t have it?

So what are we to do? Let’s take a closer look at our text to see if we can resolve the tension we feel between Jesus’ call to evangelism and our discomfort. Let’s begin with the mode of evangelism, the how to of it. If we think of our discomfort with evangelism, I think most of our discomfort comes from the way in which we see people doing evangelism. We are uncomfortable with the thought of talking to strangers about our faith. We are too introverted for such activity. We view it as arrogant and so on.

It is true that Jesus sends out his disciples to go from town to town proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, but he doesn’t send them out into Champaign-Urbana in the 21st century. In verse 5 he says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus sends them into a particular context in which this form of evangelism was not offensive in itself. It was part of the culture

Jesus sends his disciples to the people of Israel. Many were hoping for the Kingdom of God. They longed for the coming of the Messiah. Many therefore heard the proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom as good news indeed. The disciples and Jesus himself took on the role of the itinerant prophet – bringing a message from God, the good news that the Kingdom was near. If there was any offense in the disciple’s proclamation, it was an in-house offense. Jesus and his disciples offended people just as Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah offended people years before. They offended people because their message was not only that the Kingdom of God was coming, but also that the Kingdom of God was for sinners and that all people, even the “righteous” needed to repent. No one likes to be told they need to repent, after all.

Now there may be times when we are called to be prophetic in our culture. Standing up against racism and working for social justice to name just two. When we do so we are announcing the coming Kingdom of God in our actions and also challenging people to repent. But we don’t need to stand on the street corner calling people to repent. Rather we contextualize our message to our culture. Moreover, there were many other ways Jesus engaged in evangelism. He cared for the sick. He reached out to the outcasts of society. He ate meals with sinners and tax collectors.

Authentic evangelism begins with the way we live our lives. It begins by living out the truths of the gospel and by living into the various callings we have, which we looked at last week, as image bearers of God who are being transformed into image bearers of Christ Jesus. Live in such a way that if and when you ever do talk to someone about Jesus or the good news, you can say, “Jesus is why I do this,” or “The kingdom of God is why I am so passionate about that,” or “Let me tell you about what God has done in my life”

And that leads us to a second thing to consider: none of us has arrived yet. We are all still becoming what God is making us to be. We can all sing, “I am not there yet. I’m still flawed and broken. Sometimes I can taste the sweetness of the kingdom, but I can’t yet hold it fast.” Jesus needs to hold us fast.

In the beginning of chapter 9 Jesus finds Matthew, one of the 12, sitting at a tax collector’s booth. If there ever was an Israelite who was ‘not there yet,’ it was a tax collector. Working for the Romans. Dealing with Gentiles all day long. Taking from the people of Israel, probably skimming some of the top, and turning over their money to the pagans. Could you find anyone else who had so betrayed the nation of Israel? But Jesus calls to Matthew and says, “Follow me.” Worse, Jesus then goes with Matthew to Matthew’s house and has dinner with him. There they are joined by more tax collectors and even other sinners. When the Pharisees begin to grumble about this, Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (12-13).

Jesus gathers 12 of his disciples to him and he designates f them as apostles. Jesus appoints 12 apostles in order that they might represent Israel, the 12 tribes of Israel. These 12, then, are the first 12 “found sheep of Israel.” They were just recently “lost sheep of Israel until they were “found” by the Good Shepherd. They are not far removed from the place in which the rest of Israel finds itself. They are “not there yet.” Read the gospels and you will see that they are still flawed and broken, yet Jesus sends them out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. They are sent, therefore, not based upon anything they have done to earn such a position. They are sent not because they are so much better or more righteous than the “lost sheep of Israel.” They are sent merely because Jesus designates them to be sent. But why does Jesus designate them as apostles?

That brings us to a third point to consider: our motivation for evangelism. At the beginning of our text in verse 36 Matthew writes, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not in order to express our love, or our compassion, or our pity on others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not because he has given us something that he now wants us to share with others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not because we are more spiritual, or more righteous, or more knowledgeable about God than others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because he has compassion for his lost sheep. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because he is the Great Shepherd of all people, and he considers those who do not know him as harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because out of his compassion he wants all his sheep to know him. For whatever reason Jesus has decided to enact his compassion through people like you and me. Jesus has gathered us into his fold because of his compassion, how can we not be willing accomplices in his compassion for others?

Authentic evangelism must arise out of the context of our own lives and fit into the context of our culture. Rather than making us feel awkward, it should be organic to us. It should flow out of who we are becoming in Jesus Christ. Perhaps some of us are called to be prophets, calling our society to live more justly, thus calling them to repent. But if you are called to be a prophet, as a follower of Christ, you are also called to be an evangelist, to be willing and able to talk about how Jesus and the Kingdom of God are the basis for your hopes and your actions.

Others of us may not be called to be such prophets, but I think we are all called to be evangelists. And I think we can all fulfill that calling by seeing ourselves as fellow travelers with other Christians, with people from other faiths, with people of no faith. As we travel along we try to live our lives in such a way that they point to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. At places along the way there may be times when we can learn something about God from others. At places along the way we may have the opportunity to share with others why we live the way we do and why we believe in Jesus and hope for the Kingdom of God. This is not arrogance. We are not asked by Jesus to make any judgements about others. In fact he forbids it. We are simply called to be honest about who we are, about our hope in and love for God, about what God has done in our lives, and who God calls us to be. And it must may be that our story, our testimony may lead people to the rope of Jesus’ compassion. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silent prayer)

Gracious God, grant us the transforming presence of your Holy Spirit so that our lives may be, in word and deed, a living testimony of the compassion of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Amen.

June 11, 2017 In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
(Matthew 28:16-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] How are you Rissa, and Samuel, and Eleora, and Alan, and Ruby, and Mayuri, and Seiji, and Kenji? Now I know your names, but do you know my name. Tim, that’s right, but that is my nickname. Does anyone know my full name? It’s Timothy, but I ask everyone to call me Tim. I only use Timothy on special occasions. Now there is another nickname for Timothy, do you know what that is? Timmy.  Now I don’t mind being called Timothy, I prefer to be called Tim, but I really don’t like being called Timmy. I don’t like Timmy because I always thought it was a name for a little boy and I always wanted to be treated as older than I was. The only person I ever let call me Timmy was the old lady who lived down the street from us whose lawn I mowed.

You see a name is a very personal thing. A name belongs to you in a way that nothing belongs to you. You sort of feel like your name is a part of who you are. That is why it is always very hurtful to make fun of someone’s name. When you make fun of someone’s name, you are making fun of the person themselves, aren’t you. But when you honor someone’s name, you honor that person as well.

So we all have names, but what is God’s name? God the Son has a name, Jesus. But what about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit? One time God told Moses that his name was Yahweh, but Yahweh in Hebrew means “I am who I am.” God’s answer was sort of like saying, “I don’t have a name like you have a name, but you can call me ‘I am who I am.’”

I am a bit puzzled because Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gathered his disciples around him and he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19). So if there really isn’t a name for God the Trinity, what does it mean to baptize in his name?

Well, a person’s name, like I said has to do with their honor. So when we are baptized into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are marked out by God’s honor. We are called to live in such a way that we bring honor to God’s name, in such a way that we honor God. So when you come into church every week, and you see this bowl that holds the water I use to baptize people, remember that we who are baptized into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are called to honor God with our whole lives. [End].

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesus came to his disciples and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.”

If all authority in heaven and earth were given to you, what would you do? Would you command that all nuclear bombs be dismantled? Would you mandate that every nation in the world had to abide by the Paris Agreement regarding climate change? Would you revamp the drug laws that fill our prisons with non-violent offenders? Would you enact a national health-care system that provided basic health care for all? Would you put an end to the international slave trade? If all authority in heaven and earth were given to you, what would you do?  If that is what you would do, why isn’t that what Jesus did? Or maybe, Jesus did do something like all those things, but his implementation went like this: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.”

We often think of this passage in rather narrow terms. The “Great Commission,” as it is called, has been taken as our primary mandate as Christians. It has come to define the main goal of the Christian life as being to convert others to the Christian faith. Is that what this text is about? Undoubtedly Jesus desires us to make disciples of other people. All authority was given to him, and his plan to address all the needs of the world, all the evils of the world, is to commission his church to go and make disciples of all nations. That is what he does when he is given all authority in heaven and earth. He enacts no legislation. He makes no international treaties. He doesn’t ban swords or spears or chariots or trebuchets.  He commissions his followers to go and make disciples.

That begs the questions, however, of what it means to be a disciple. We have often understood a disciple to be someone who believes in Jesus and then obeys this command from Jesus. A disciple is someone who believes in Jesus and gets others to believe in Jesus. Jesus’ command to baptize new disciples has been seen to be just the ritual marker or a capstone to this process. Baptism simply symbolizes the new convert’s choice to believe in Jesus.

But Jesus commands us to baptize disciples into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded. That is a much more expansive calling for a disciple. Jesus commanded many more things than simply making more disciples. Moreover, the sense of Jesus’ command is not a call for us to parse out each and every command he ever gave the disciples and follow only those. The sense is that a disciple of Jesus is one who walks in the way of Jesus, who lives her life in the manner Jesus did. It is to take up the same ethos as Jesus. It is not merely to follow a bunch of commands that could be listed and totaled and thus followed to a tee. It is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Moreover, to be baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is an even broader mandate yet. As I said in the children’s sermon, to be baptized into God’s name is to have your life committed to the honor of God. And that means we are to be committed to all that God is and all that God is doing. In short, to be baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is to be enlisted into the purposes of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is to be joined to the mission of God. That, then, is the broader definition of a disciple. A disciple is someone who has been joined to the mission of God.

Baptized in the name of God the Father, we have been incorporated into the mission of God the Father. The mission of God the Father begins like this, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:1, 26)

The Psalmist puts it like this:

When I consider your heavens / the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars, / which you have set in place,

what is humankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings  that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds, / and the animals of the wild,

the birds in the sky, / and the fish in the sea, / all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, / how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:3-9, NIV)

In the beginning God set out to make a vibrant, diverse, flourishing creation that reflected his glory. He made the cosmos to proclaim and reflect his might and his wisdom and his hospitality and his love and his grace. God set out to make a creation that would honor his name. At the pinnacle of that creation, he set humankind. He charged humankind with tending and caring for the creation so that the creation would flourish and so that the creation and humankind itself would reflect the glory and honor of his name.

Baptized into the name of the Father, we are called to honor God by tending to the creation, by being “like God.” We participate in the mission of God the Father by learning more about the world and how it works through the sciences. We participate in the mission of God by examining the nature and history of humanity through politics, history, economics, sociology, psychology so that we have a better understanding of humanity itself. We participate in the mission of God through the artistic and creative fields, producing and performing music, designing homes and buildings, melding beauty, form and function in the things we humans make. We participate in the mission of God when we bring healing to other human beings, to the political and social systems, or to our environment. And we participate in the mission of God when we produce things for the good of society. In all these ways we participate in the mission of God when we support the flourishing of God’s creation.

But of course, God’s creation and humanity in particular have strayed from God’s initial intentions. And so we come to the mission of God the Son. Baptized into the name of God the Son, we are joined to the mission of God the Son which begins like this, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). And it continues, “For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). The mission of God the Son is to redeem humanity and God’s broken world.

Now I have defined the mission of God the Father in terms of the Creation, and the mission of God the Son in terms of Salvation, but each person of the Trinity works in each aspect of the mission of God. All things were made through and in and for the Word of God. Eternal life, as Jesus defines it in John 17:2, is to know God [the Father] and Jesus Christ. The salvation we receive through Jesus Christ is therefore not just the salvation of our spirits. It is the salvation of our whole beings, our souls, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. In his book Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright has said, “Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.”[1] The purpose of our salvation, the mission of Jesus, God the Son, was not simply to make us believe in Jesus or have a personal relationship with Jesus, but to put humanity back on track with God’s original plan for the creation.

Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, pastor, and philosopher from the late 19th century, saw this over one hundred years ago. Moreover, he emphasized that God’s plan for creation and God’s plan in Jesus was always to bring about a new, a renewed creation. He wrote,

Shall we consider the work of the Christ on Golgotha as finished, or shall we with Scripture and with the whole church of the first centuries continue to expect our Lord from heaven in order to bring the present situation to an end and lead it to a new heaven and a new earth? To put it succinctly, shall we imagine that the Redeemer of our soul is enough for us, or shall we continue to confess a Christ of God as the Savior of both soul and body and as re-creator, not only of the things that are invisible but also of the things that are visible and apparent to our eyes? … Does the fact that he overcame the world mean that one day he will cast the world back into nothingness in order to be left with only the souls of the elect, or does it mean that the world will also be his prize, the trophy of his glory?[2]

You see, once God created the world in order that his name would be honored and glorified through the creation, God committed himself to that very creation. And so God has also committed himself to human beings whom he made in his image to be the stewards of his creation. God’s name, God’s honor depends on God redeeming and renewing both humanity and the whole creation. The mission of Jesus, God the Son, is therefore to bring humanity back into the full mission of God the Father, to renew our spirits, minds, bodies and souls so that we can be the images of God he created us to be.

To participate in the mission of the Son is therefore to live with faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. It is, as Jesus says, to die to ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him. To participate in the mission of Christ is to live in this world according to the new way we are being remade in the image of Christ. It is to have the same mind as Christ, as Paul says in Philippians 2. It is to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. .. and over all these virtues to put on love which binds them all together in perfect unity,” which Paul says in Colossians 3. As we live in the way of Christ we participate in the mission of Christ for then we bear witness to Christ in all we say and do. We thus demonstrate that the salvation Christ has come to bring includes not just individual people, but all of life, and that it anticipates the full renewal, the recreation of all things which we call the Kingdom of God.

And that brings us to the mission of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, as we heard last week, who works in our hearts to transform our whole being, our soul, body, mind, and spirit. But it is also the Holy Spirit who is at work in the hearts of those who may not yet have faith in Jesus Christ. For, as Jesus says, “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again from above,” and “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:3,5).

We participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit, first of all, as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of our own selves. As Paul says in Philippians 2, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Through worship and prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines, through our life together as we teach and encourage one another in the church, we position ourselves to receive the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

And second, we participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit as we cooperate with the Spirit as the Spirit works in the hearts of others who do not yet know Christ Jesus. As we live and work in the world as followers of Jesus, we bear witness to the person of Jesus in word and deed to those around us. We become signs of God’s kingdom through our service and ministry. When asked we tell others the reason for our hope and for our faith in Christ.  We tell them the good news about Jesus Christ and his kingdom. And, when appropriate, we invite others to put their faith in Jesus Christ as well. This is how we participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit. This is how we make disciples so that they too may become dedicated to the mission of God and be baptized in the name God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Triune God, may we who have been baptized in your name live by your Spirit so that we may walk in the ways of Christ Jesus our Lord, and so bring glory to our heavenly Father. Amen

[1] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (HarperOne, 2011), 216.

[2] Quoted in Craig G. Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 38.

June 4, 2017 Streams of Living Water
(John 7:37-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Did you know that you are mostly water? Over half of your body weight comes from water. That is why when you get really, really thirsty, water tastes better than anything else. When you are thirsty your body is telling you that it needs more water.

So how much water do you think you have in your body? One gallon? [pulls out a gallon] Two? Three? Well how much do you weigh? 40 pounds: 3 gallons; 50:4 60:4.7; 70:5.5; 80:6.2; 90:7; 100:7.6; 110: 8.4.  Well, I need more water. [pulls out a 3 gallon jug] Now how many gallons of water do you think I have in my body? 12 gallons. I still need more water. [Pulls out a 6 gallon jug] I have all of this water in my body. Water is so important to our bodies. Without water we would shrivel up and dry out.

Once Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. And he said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38) Now Jesus was speaking about the Holy Spirit.

So just as water is so important for our physical life, the Holy Spirit is so important for our spiritual life. Without the Spirit our souls would shrivel up and dry out. But Jesus says if we come to him he will give us the Spirit to drink. And if we believe in him, the Spirit will be so abundant in us it will flow out like a river or water to others. [End]

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On the last and greatest day of the feast …” It is the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths. What is the Feast of Tabernacles? Several times over the past years our campus chaplains group has had our monthly meeting at the Chabad Jewish center on during the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot, as they call it. Each year they and other observant Jews, will erect a temporary shelter, a sukkot, outside of their house. They eat their evening meals in the sukkot and the men often spend the night in them. While the focus of the celebration is on hospitality, the practice is to help the people remember God’s hospitality as he watched over and provided for the people of Israel when they lived in tents during their years of desert wandering.

In Jesus’ day, each day during the seven days of the feast, the High priest would take a cup of water from the pool of Siloam, one of the main water sources in Jerusalem. He would walk with a procession of people following him up to the temple where he would pour it out as an offering to God. The priest also poured out a cup of wine as a thank offering for the grape harvest. The feast was therefore a feast of thanksgiving for the provisions of God, first for the people’s time in the desert when he provided them with water from the rock, with manna and with quail, and then, in the land of Israel, for God’s provision of the yearly harvest.

And so we read:

On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

We thirst for many things as human beings. We thirst, obviously, for water. We can last a couple of weeks without food, but after 3 or 4 days without water, most people are in grave danger of dying. But we also thirst for other things because to be human is to need. We thirst for beauty. We thirst for friendship and companionship. We thirst for power and authority. We thirst for all these things because God made us in his image. We are creatures who, like God, love to make things, particularly things of beauty. We like to care for things, to grow things, to nurture things – that, in its essence, is power, the ability to have meaningful control over something else. We thirst for many things and our thirst, our desires, are good things because that is the way God made us. It is no more wrong to thirst for power than for water because God made us creatures who are dependent on water and creatures in whom he invested his own power and authority.

The problem is, of course, because of sin, our thirsts have become distorted. Our thirst for power is not automatically good. It depends on what type of power we desire and over what or whom we desire to have power. It is my moral responsibility to have power over my new born child, but it is also my moral responsibility to relinquish my power, be it ever so incrementally, over my child as he grows and approaches adulthood. (With an emphasis on “incrementally.”) Our thirsts, our desires, have become distorted by sin so that we desire the wrong things, or too much of a thing, or for the wrong reasons.

Another problem, and a more subtle problem, is that we come to believe that we will satisfy our selves by satisfying the thirsts we have. We tend to tie our various thirsts and desires with the core of our selves. Our bodies thirst for water and hunger for food, but if we satisfy our bodies we ourselves may not be satisfied because our bodies are not the core of our selves. Our minds may thirst for things to do and problems to solves and so our minds may be satisfied through our work, our teaching, our research, or whatever we do, but we ourselves may not be satisfied because our minds are not the core of our selves. Our spirits may long for beauty or companionship and they may be satisfied by going to a concert with a good friend, or by making music, but we ourselves may not be satisfied because our spirits are not the core of ourselves.

Jesus addresses the core of our being. He addresses our souls. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me … rivers of living water will flow from them.” God made us with all these desires and thirsts, and so they are basically good. But at the core of our being, God made us to be in relationship with him. Our souls long for, they thirst for communion with God. In the Gospel of John Jesus speaks over and over again about his communion with the Father and our communion with God through Jesus.

I am in the Father and the Father is in me (14:11),” Jesus says. “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (20).” “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (23). “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (15:5).” And Jesus prays for all who will believe in him, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me (17:21).

This, you see, is the “eternal life,” that Jesus talks about again and again in the gospel as well. “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is to have a relational knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. To know God is not to know things about God, but to know God and Jesus as persons. It is a knowledge that comes from and flows out of our communion with God that is deep down in our very souls. And it is for this that Jesus came to us for John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”  Or more literally, “The Word became flesh and set up his tabernacle with us” (1:14).

While the Feast of Tabernacles was about God’s provision for the people - water in the desert and grapes at the harvest – it reminded the people of Israel that God’s greatest provision for them was God himself. In the desert God himself came and dwelt with his people in the Tabernacle, and in Jerusalem God came and dwelt in the Temple. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and set up his tabernacle with us. And now, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God in Jesus Christ comes to make his dwelling in his church, in each of us.

And so when we drink from this well that is Jesus, our souls are sated by our communion with God. Living water then begins to flow from out of us. Not only are our minds satisfied by the work that we do, but our souls become satisfied because the work we do flows out of our communion with God. You see, when our work flows out of our communion with God, our work demonstrates faithfulness to God’s ways. In our work we promote justice. In our work we seek peace. In our work we exercise loving dominion over the creation as God intended. And when we eat and drink out of our communion with God, not only are our bodies satisfied by food and drink, but our souls are satisfied because we eat in gratefulness for God’s provision. We affirm the goodness of God’s creation and thus the goodness and love of the Creator. And when our friendships flow out of our communion with God, our spirits and our souls are satisfied by those friendships because we are able to love others as God has loved us, and we are able to receive love from others because we know what grace is. When we come to Christ to satisfy the thirst of our souls, our whole being – our body, spirit and mind – our whole being is satisfied.

Then, when our souls are sated by our communion with God, living water flows out of us. Life, as it were, flows out of us because our souls are united to God by faith. “Whoever has faith in me,” Jesus says, “rivers of living water will flow from within them.” Faith, as I have said many times before, is not mere belief in God, or belief about God. Even the demons believe many things about God. But second, faith is a deep trust in God. It is a trust that this God will provide water in the desert and grapes at harvest time. It is a trust that even more importantly, God will remain in communion with you beyond this life. It is a trust that this communion with God is eternal life.

It is this sense of trust in God, it is this knowledge of our communion with God that enables Peter, as we heard last week, to encourage us to be joyful even in the midst of hardship and persecution. It is this trust in God and communion with God that enables Paul to be content in every situation. It is this trust that knows that nothing can separate us from the love of God which thus shapes all that we do, and thus leads to the third aspect of faith.

Faith is belief in God, trust in God, and third, faith is faithfulness to God. Faith is obedience to God. Because we trust in God and live out of our communion with God, we are enabled to walk in his ways no matter what the consequences. We can return scorn with compassion. We can love our enemies. We can remain a source of calm in the midst of a storm because our very souls are satisfied. Life, then, flows out of those who have faith in God for we walk in the ways of God which bring life and flourishing to others.

When we drink from the well that is Christ Jesus, the Spirit satisfies our souls and the life, the love, the grace of God begin to flow out of us. This living water, then begins to shape all of who we are and all of what we do. You see, we are not only satisfied by the Spirit of Christ, we are caught up, like the disciples at Pentecost, into the mission of God. The Spirit flowing through us and out of us joins us to the mission of God to bring water, living water, the Breath of Life, the good news of Jesus Christ – there are many metaphors we could use – to bring the living water of Christ Jesus to a world dying of thirst for God. Come to Jesus and drink of his living water, so that the Spirit of God may become a river of living water flowing out of you. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, create in us a deep thirst for your Word that we may know that we are in Christ and Christ is in you, and so that we might become vessels of your grace. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

May 28, 2017 It is written
(Luke 24:44-53; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young, I took piano lessons. Does anyone here take piano lessons? So what do you have to do to learn how to play the piano? You have to practice. And sometimes when you start out, things don’t sound so good, right? Like when your teacher gives you a new piece of music and it is a bit harder than what you have done before. Maybe when you first play it you make a lot of mistakes, maybe the rhythm is a bit difficult and you have trouble counting. But then you practice and you practice, and eventually you are able to play the piece without any mistakes.

When I got a bit older, I decided I didn’t want to play the piano anymore, but that I wanted to play the guitar. The only problem was that I just wanted to play the guitar. I didn’t want to practice. I wanted to have fun playing, but I didn’t want to do the hard work of practicing. Do you think I ever learned how to play the guitar well? No, I gave it up after about 2 years. Sometimes in life we like to skip the hard stuff and go right to the fun stuff. But that usually doesn’t work out so well.

This morning is Ascension Sunday. Can anyone tell me what the Ascension is? It was when Jesus ascended into heaven. So today we celebrate that Jesus entered into his glory. He ascended into heaven in order to sit on his throne. But before Jesus ascended into heaven, he explained to his disciples what was written about him in the bible. “this is what is written,” he said, “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”

When Jesus came to us, he didn’t skip the hard stuff. He took up his cross and he died for us. It was only after he suffered and died that God raised him from the dead and that he Jesus ascended into heaven. So when we praise God that Jesus is on his throne in heaven, let us always remember that Jesus loved us so much that he didn’t skip the hard stuff. He went to the cross first. [End]

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Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” (1 Peter 4:12). Peter has called us to some uncomfortable places over the past few weeks. He has called us to live in hope, ever cognizant of the pain and suffering and evil in this world, but yet trusting that God will overcome all evil and bring in his kingdom. He has called us to be free slaves, free with regard to the powers of this world, yet slaves of God. He has called us to be aliens, sojourners and foreigners in this world, citizens of the Kingdom of God who live by the beat of a different drum.

Peter calls his congregation to these places in the world because they are being persecuted for their faith. He calls them to these liminal, in between spaces, in order to encourage them to endure their trial and remain faithful to Christ and filled with hope for his coming kingdom. All of these point to and prepare his congregation to hear what he has to say in our text: Don’t be surprised by your suffering, but rejoice in it for through your suffering you are participating in the suffering of Christ. Peter calls his congregation and us to the most difficult of liminal spaces – to be joyful in the midst of suffering.

This is certainly not how we usually look at or feel about suffering. In fact, it is quite odd. Should this change how we respond to those who are suffering? Should we say to the person who has just lost their job, “take joy in your suffering?”  Should we take the child who has skinned her knee, give her a hug, and say, “Isn’t that great. You are in pain!”  I imagine we all strive pretty hard to avoid suffering. Suffering in itself is never a cause for joy, but lamentation. But how do we make sense of Peter’s encouragement that his congregation rejoice because they are suffering?

This morning is Ascension Sunday and I think our text from Luke sheds some light on this dilemma. Jesus has passed through his suffering. He has endured the cruelty, the pain and the shame of the cross. He has died, but he has risen. He gathers his disciples in Bethany. He blesses them and is taken up into heaven. He ascends to take his place on the throne of God. As Paul says in Philippians, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11).

On this day we celebrate Jesus’ rise to glory. We praise God that the King of kings has finally taken his rightful place. We are encouraged and our hope is strengthened for we know that Christ is working to extend his reign over all things. He is working to extend his peace and his justice, to eliminate oppression and evil and suffering. His ascension gives us hope that his Kingdom is coming.

But right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus spends one last time teaching his disciples. And what does he teach them? He says to them, “‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47).

On the day Jesus ascends to his glory, he has to explain to his disciples why it is that he had to suffer. The cross is a difficult thing for us to understand. Why did Jesus have to die? Well, it wasn’t obvious to the disciples either. What is rather annoying, however, is that Jesus says “This is what is written,” but then what he says is not written in the scriptures. There is no place where you will find a quote that says, “The Messiah will suffer,” and so on.

We will often immediately go to Paul or even to Peter in order to explain why Jesus had to suffer. We will explain that Jesus took upon himself the sins of humanity and paid the price of our guilt. Peter says we are saved by “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1:19). And also, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”  (2:24). But the scriptures for Jesus and the disciples obviously didn’t include the New Testament. Where then is it written in the Old Testament that the Messiah must suffer?

Biblical scholars will point to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. This makes sense since they are among the most quoted Old Testament texts in the New Testament. In the book of Acts Phillip encounters an Ethiopian reading one of these passages: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Luke writes, “then Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and told [the eunuch] the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

Jesus, however, says in verse 44, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” The Jews divided the Old testament into 3 parts: the Torah, the Law of Moses, which is the first 5 books of the bible; the Prophets which covers what we call the prophets but included the historical books like Joshua and Kings; and “the Psalms” which was short hand for all the books of wisdom – the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and so on. So Jesus isn’t just quoting from Isaiah. He is looking at the whole biblical story.

Now we don’t know how Jesus did this, or what he said. But Jesus invites us to interpret the whole of the Old Testament through the lens of his death and resurrection. So what happens if we read the scriptures through this lens of Jesus death and resurrection, through both his suffering and glory? By doing so, I hope that we can then make sense of Peter’s encouragement to his congregation that they can, and thus even we can, rejoice in the midst of suffering.

The beginning of the biblical story starts with glory but quickly devolves into pain and suffering. God creates the world so that all his creatures might flourish and he crowns his creation with humanity. He creates human beings in his image, invests them with his glory, and commissions them to be his vice regents within the world. But they quickly turn from God’s ways and seek to create their own. By eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the first humans attempt to determine for themselves what is good and what is evil. Not satisfied with the glory given them by God, they seek to become gods themselves.

Of course this turns Gods intended blessing for them into a curse. Instead of a life of flourishing and blessing, the humans earn for themselves a life of pain and suffering. Their labor, both the woman’s labor in child birth and the man’s in producing food, will be fraught with pain and toil. And they earn for themselves the suffering and pain of contentious relationships. Their actions curse the relationships between humanity and God, between humanity and the rest of creation, and the relationships within humanity. Instead of life and flourishing, humans earn for themselves curse and death.

When I am talking with new Christians or those who are exploring Christianity, they often stop me at this point in the story and ask, “Well why did God create humanity in such a way that they might disobey him and lead to the mess that came from their disobedience?” One answer to that is that God wanted to create other beings who would truly love him, and for true love, a being must have a free will. But if a being has free will, there is the chance or perhaps the likelihood that that being will eventually choose to not love and obey God.

At a deeper level, however, is what this all says about the nature of God himself. By creating human beings with a free will and investing them with power and authority, in giving them a share in his own power, God made himself vulnerable. God opened himself up, as it were, to suffering. When we think of the attributes of God we think of his omnipotence, that he is all powerful, his omniscience, that he is all knowing, and so one. But do we ever stop to think that perhaps at the core of God’s being is his vulnerability, or at least his choice to be vulnerable. Love, as the apostle John teaches us, is the primary attribute of God, and love leads to vulnerability. So it is out of his love that God invests humanity with free will and with power and authority and so the loving God becomes a vulnerable God, a God who is open to suffering.

Maybe you are a bit skeptical at this point. Is that what Genesis 1 teaches, you may ask. But think of the rest of the story. This same pattern gets repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament. God continues to choose human beings, to invest them with responsibility, to call them to participate in his plan to redeem the creation, and human beings continue to fail him. God calls Abraham. Abraham doubts and has a child with Hagar. God calls Jacob, and Jacob responds by making a deal with God saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-22).

Yes, the story is a mixed bag. Abraham and Jacob prove to be faithful in the end. But even the greatest of God’s servants, Moses and David, were flawed servants and failed God on several occasions. Overall, however, the story of God and Israel, from the Golden Calf at Saini to the child sacrifices under King Manasseh, the story of Israel is one of Israel becoming more and more faithless and disobedient. It is the story of God investing power and authority in humanity, of God making himself vulnerable by choosing to incorporate humanity into his mission, and of humanity failing God. In a sense, the story of Israel and God is not the story of the judgmental and vindictive God you so often here about, but the story of a patient, long-suffering, and ultimately loving and merciful God. Time after time, God calls Israel back to him. Time after time, God forgives and then opens himself up again, he makes himself vulnerable, by sticking with Israel as his chosen instrument to bring his blessing to the world.

If vulnerability, if being open to suffering, is an important characteristic of God, then it stands to reason that vulnerability, being open to suffering, is an important characteristic for human beings, those made in the image of God. In a recent interview Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk and spiritual guru, said, “I think the truly human is always experienced in vulnerability, in mutuality, in reciprocity.  When human beings try to deny their own vulnerability, even from themselves, when they cannot admit weakness, neediness, hurt, pain, suffering, sadness, they become very unhuman and not very attractive.” [1]

If vulnerability, the openness to suffering, is an important aspect of God and his mission, it is an important aspect of what it means to be human. It is no surprise then that the one who became both God and human, the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, made himself vulnerable. It is no surprise when Jesus says, “This is what is written, ‘The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.’”

Jesus’ death on the cross is not just a legal transaction between God and the devil. It is not just an ordeal Jesus goes through to satisfy the justice of God. The cross is the climax of God’s love story with humanity and his creation. The cross is God becoming his most vulnerable, his most open to suffering, for the sake of his beloved humanity. But the cross is not only about the love of God for humanity, it is also the story of the love of humanity for God, for Jesus was both God and human. As a human Jesus becomes his most vulnerable on the cross because of his love and devotion to God. On the cross, Jesus as God suffers for us. On the cross, Jesus as human loves God and remains obedient to him for us.

Later in the interview Rohr speaks about the vulnerability of God, and says, “Vulnerability transforms you. You can’t be in the presence of a truly vulnerable, honestly vulnerable person and not be affected.” When we see someone who is suffering, someone who is truly vulnerable we are presented with a choice. We can either respond to that person with love and compassion, or we have to turn away from that person with a hardness of heart. The biblical story is the story of God coming to us in love and vulnerability. When we look at Jesus on the cross, we are confronted with a choice. We can either look upon his suffering with compassion, love, and gratitude, or turn from it in disgust and hardness of heart. The suffering of Jesus is an invitation to the soul of our humanity to be truly human, to respond out of the image of God in us, and so to respond with love, compassion, and gratitude.

The cross of Jesus is thus the most poignant instance of an invitation God has been issuing to humanity since he created us in his image. God has always been opening himself up to suffering in order to draw us into him, into his ways, and into his plan for the whole creation. Our suffering, therefore, can become a reason for joy. Not all suffering, mind you. Suffering is never good in and of itself. But if we suffer because of our confession of Christ, if we suffer for the gospel, then we can rejoice for we are participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. If we suffer on behalf of and for the sake of others, then we can rejoice, for then we are participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. And if we suffer for whatever reason, but refuse to give up faith in the basic goodness of this world and hope for God’s kingdom, if our suffering doesn’t lead to cynicism, anger and despair, if through our suffering we can bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom, then we can rejoice in our suffering for we participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silent prayer.

Gracious God, may your Spirit work in us through your word spoken to us today that we may be made more and more into the image of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Krista Tippet, “Richard Rohr — Living in Deep Time,” On Being, April 13, 2017,

May 21, 2017 Alternative Facts
(1 Peter 3:8-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Have any of you ever visited another country? Have any of you ever lived in another country? Some of you have parents and grandparents from different countries. So I bet you know that people do things differently in different countries, don’t they? For instance, people do different things when they greet one another in different countries. What are you supposed to do in the United States when you greet someone? Shake their hand. But what do you do when you greet someone in Japan, or Taiwan, or Korea? You bow to them. Do people do anything different in other countries? How about in Germany or India?

This morning we have a special guest, Leanne Geisterfer. She is a missionary in Honduras which is in Latin America. Now some people in Latin American will give each other a small hug and a kiss on the cheek when they greet each other. That’s really different than a bow or a handshake. And what do you think would happen if I went to Japan and gave people a kiss on the cheek instead of bowing to them?

Following Jesus is sort of like being from one country but living in another country. The Apostle Peter tells the people in his church to “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts.” That means we are to obey Jesus and follow his ways rather than the ways of the world around us. Peter says, “Live at peace with one another; be sympathetic, love each other as brothers and sisters, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay bad behavior with bad behavior or insult with insult, but with blessing.” Some people only think about themselves. Some people don’t care about others. Some people try to get even when someone is mean to them. But Jesus loved everyone and was even kind to those who were mean to him.

So if we follow Jesus, sometimes we may feel like we don’t fit in. We might feel like we are from one country, but living in another and that we don’t do things the same way. And sometimes others might make fun of us for that or insult us. But Peter says, “It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil because Christ died to sins to bring us to God.” [End]

* * * * * * * *

 Over the past few weeks we have been looking at how Peter calls us to live in liminal spaces, in in-between spaces. He calls us to live as people of hope, as people who love this world, but long for a better world. He calls us to live as free slaves, as those who are free with respect to the powers of this world, but slaves with respect to God. Over and over he calls us to live as foreigners, sojourners and aliens. We are God’s chosen nation, a holy priesthood, a people belonging to God and so in some ways we don’t quite fit here in this world.

In short, Peter recognizes that we live in liminal spaces because we must live within whatever culture we are in, but we are to be governed by a different culture, the culture of the Kingdom of God. In this morning’s text Peter gives a summary of the ethical life we as citizens of God’s Kingdom are called to live in a fallen world.

Before we look at that summary, however, we should look at the ethics of the Roman culture in which Peter’s audience lived. From 2:11 up to our text Peter uses a familiar ethical framework of his day to address how Christians ought to live in the Roman world. If you are familiar with Paul’s letters, he uses the same framework which modern biblical scholars call a household code. In Roman and Greek literature of the day, the household code was used to give ethical advice to the head of the household, or the patron. The patron was advised as to how he should instruct each member of his household - his slaves, servants, wife, concubine, and children – as to their duties, obligations and how they should behave.

The framework of the household codes serve as a prism of the whole Roman culture. Within the household the male head of the household, the patron, ruled over everyone else and each member of the household was expected to fulfill their various roles and show loyalty and obedience to the patron. In return for their loyalty, obedience, and service, the patron would look after the needs of his subordinates. Within the broader culture the gods, of course, stood at the top of a similar patriarchy. In the first century, the Emperor was elevated almost to the level of the gods. He was worshipped as the son of god and savior of the people. In return for the worship and loyalty of the people, the gods and the emperor served as the protectors of the people. This same framework of patron and client relationships worked through all levels of society with the very wealthy and powerful people at the top and slaves at the very bottom.  

The main ethical values of the society supported this patriarchal framework and the patron client relationships formed within it. The household codes reinforced the cultural value that the patron rightfully ruled over the lesser people in the household. They reinforced the use of power over others and the striving after higher positions of power and prestige. While patrons were encouraged to rule with wisdom and justice, and so forth, compassion, mercy and love for those beneath them were not commended as necessary virtues.

Peter thus uses the framework of the household code in order to subvert the whole system. Rather than addressing rulers and all those in authority, he addresses all people who are under the authority of various patrons – governors, kings, and heads of households. He then addresses slaves and wives. By addressing everyone who is under the authority of a patron, Peter democratizes society. He treats everyone as an image bearer of God, as someone who is ethically responsible. And when he does address those in authority, husbands and later elders, he doesn’t instruct them about how those under their authority should behave, but rather tells them to behave “in the same way” as those under their authority. Again, Peter is not a revolutionary. He still recognizes various levels of authority, but those with authority are admonished not to lord their authority over others. He admonishes husbands to respect their wives and elders to be servants of those they oversee. While the household codes gave all ethical responsibility and authority to the patrons, Peter treats everyone as ethically equal before God.

In our text, then, he summarizes what life within the people of God’s kingdom ought to look like. Instead of a top, down, authoritative structure in which patrons rule over others, Peter says, “live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” Instead of maintaining power over others, Peter encourages a mutuality of love and respect. Instead of assuming that everyone should be striving after greater prestige and higher positions, Peter calls everyone to service and humility. In short, he calls us to “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts.”

In January President Trump argued that the size of the crowd at his inauguration was far bigger than the media reported. When CNN confronted Kelly Ann Conway, a counselor to the President, about this, she said the White House was using “alternative facts.” The media, the park district and others had one set of “facts,” while the White House had its own “facts.” Of course everyone immediately pointed out that both of these sets of “facts” could not be “facts.” One set of facts was indeed factual, the other was not.  The point of all this, however, is that whether one believed the White House’s “alternative facts” or the facts as presented by the mainstream media was probably determined by one’s loyalty to or one’s opposition of President Trump. People are sort of living into different “realities” based on their opinion of the President.

We all live within a moral and ethical framework that is shaped largely by our culture, and this moral framework becomes the reality in which we live. The Romans lived within a moral framework that valued power, authority, duty, and obligation. Here in the United States we live within a cultural moral framework that values individuality and independence, personal choice and autonomy, competition and industriousness, and material and social “success.”  But does this moral framework support, compliment and conform to the moral framework of the Kingdom of God? Does our competitive society encourage us to be sympathetic and compassionate of others? Does our insistence on individual autonomy move us to humility? Is our industriousness aimed at turning from evil to do good, to seek peace and pursue it as Peter says in verse 11? Does our pursuit of success train us and ready us to repay evil and insult with blessing?

The first question for us is are we living according to the true values of the Kingdom of God, that is, the true values of the reality God created, or are we living according to the “alternative values” of a broken world and culture? Do we even recognize that we live within a “reality,” a cultural moral framework, that does not conform to the deeper truths of God’s moral framework? Part of the problem is that we take our cultural moral framework as “just the way things are.” This is the air that we breathe and so we take it as “reality.” But can we see that this “reality” is not in full conformity to the values of the Kingdom of God?

The second question for us is who or what claims our loyalty? Have we set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts? Who or what claims our loyalty will shape the “reality” we live in and the ethical norms we live by. So are we following in the ways of Jesus and being obedient to him so that the values that he lived by become ingrained in us? For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Lord God, by the power of you Spirit, conform us to Christ and give us the courage and strength to live out the message we have heard today. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.




May 7, 2017 Free Servants
(1 Peter 2:11-25) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have two questions for you. First: do you ever play pretend? Do you ever play “house” and pretend to be a mommy or a daddy? Or maybe you pretend to be a doctor or a teacher? When I was young my friends and I liked to pretend that we were spies. What do you like to pretend to be?

Second: what do you do when someone is being mean to you? What do you do when someone makes fun of you or insults you?  Do you call them a name? Maybe you try to think of something even meaner to say to them? I think that is what we often want to do when someone is mean to us. But is it the right thing to do?

The Apostle Peter once wrote to some churches who were being treated badly by the Romans. Peter doesn’t tell them to fight back. Instead he tells them that Jesus left us an example and that they should “follow in his steps.” He says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not fight back; when he suffered, he made no threats” (1 Peter 2:21-23). He basically tells them to pretend to be Jesus.

If someone is mean to you, instead of fighting back, you can pretend to be like Jesus. You can say something kind to them instead of something mean. You can walk away from them instead of fighting back. And before Jesus suffered on the cross, he went and he prayed to his Father. He talked to God about it. If someone is being mean to you, instead of fighting back you can tell God about it. You can pray about it, but you can also tell your parents about it, because that is just what Jesus did. [End]

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Over the last couple of weeks we have looked at how Peter describes the liminal places in which the church of Christ is called to inhabit. Liminal spaces are in-between places, places on the threshold of the old and the new. First, as those who believe that Christ has risen and ascended to reign over the entire creation, we are a people who live in hope. Hope is a liminal space because we trust that Christ is indeed reigning but yet we long for his return for sin and evil continue to run rampant in the world. Second, Peter calls us to live as sojourners. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but yet we continue to live in a world with nations that do not recognize the Kingship of Christ. We must live as citizens of the Kingdom in a foreign nation.

Peter has mapped out this liminal space by drawing us into the story of Israel. God chose Israel and called her to live as his holy nation in the midst of the pagan world in order that God’s blessing might flow through Israel to the nations and thus draw the nations to God. Now the church has become the New Israel, as Peter says in 2:9. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out darkness into his wonderful light.” Like Israel, the church finds itself often in liminal spaces – living in the desert where their faith is formed and tested as they await entry into the Promised Land, and living in exile under the oppressive rule of the very pagans Israel is called to bear witness to.

In our text this morning Peter turns from the theological narrative to the practical application; this is our story, how then shall we live? But before we move on, we should note the centrality of Christ in Peter’s story. Peter draws us not only into the story of Israel but also into the story of Christ for Jesus fulfills the story of Israel. In 1:2 the hope we have comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection assures us that God will be victorious over death and sin, and so will bring us into our inheritance, which is the Kingdom of God. In 1:19 Peter bases our hope in the salvation won for us “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” In 2:4 and following, Peter teaches us that the church, as God’s chosen people, is being built into the temple of God. The church becomes the place where God is present in the world. But this temple has Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone, the stone upon which the whole structure is formed.

Notice how Peter portrays Jesus in all these texts. Although Jesus is the “chosen and precious cornerstone,” he is the one “the builders rejected” and the one that “causes men to stumble.” Although Jesus is our savior, he is the sacrificial lamb. Although Jesus is the one who gives us hope for a new life and a new world, he is the one who died in order to bring about salvation and the new creation. Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel by being rejected, sacrificed and killed.

Israel’s story, Christ’s story is the church’s story. How then shall we live? If you look at your Bibles it looks like versus 11-13 form Peter’s conclusion to his theological narrative. But when an author in a Greek letter addresses their audience, when they say something like “Dear friends,” this usually indicates the beginning of a new section. “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles,” based on the story that I just mapped out for you, “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

The church is called to live in a liminal space as sojourners. Some things the culture around us considers good, we must consider evil, and some things we consider as good, the culture will consider as evil. But we must continue to do what is good, although it is considered evil, and abstain from what is evil but is considered good. In the first century Roman world the Christians were expected to participate in the communal practices of idolatry. As I said two weeks ago, because they were no longer considered Jews and so exempt from such worship, Christians were beginning to be persecuted because they abstained from idolatry.

Religion and idol worship were not seen as private or family practices. Communities practiced idolatry so that the gods would favor the community with rain, so that the fertility gods would assure abundant crops and prolific herds, so that the gods of commerce and travel would protect the merchants. If part of the community abstained from this worship, the gods might become angry with the whole community. But Christians must stand apart from the community when it comes to worshipping idols. In fact, they must stand apart from the entire Roman world.  The basic Christian confession that Jesus is Lord, stood in direct rebellion of the growing emperor cult in which the Roman emperor was worshipped as Lord, Savior, and Son of God.

We must also remember that some of this worship, particularly the worship of the fertility gods, involved sexual activity. Christians not only abstained from this worship because it was idolatrous, but also because it was immoral. The “good deeds” of remaining faithful in marriage and just worshipping Jesus were thus perceived as “evil” because they could possibly harm the community.

The “good deeds” of the church thus led to the persecution of the Christian communities. Peter’s encouragement to them is to live more fully into the story of Christ Jesus. Like Jesus, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority. … For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as slaves of God.” Here again the church is called into a liminal space – live as free slaves.

Like Israel, you are free people. You are not slaves to the pagan nation in which you live. You are not slaves of Pharaoh or of Caesar. Do not obey them or walk in their ways when their ways are contrary to the ways of God for you are free. Yet you are slaves of God. The way to live as free slaves is to humble yourselves as Christ humbled himself and submit to the powers that be when they persecute you. In other words, we are called to disobey immoral demands and cultural norms, but we are not to rebel or incite revolution. We are called to subversion, not violence.

Peter moves from the broader topic of living in a pagan society to the more specific topic of a Christian slave living with a pagan master. We may find Peter’s advice to slaves unsettling for it looks on the surface to condone the institution of slavery. But Peter, along with Paul in similar passages, undercuts and subverts the institution of slavery because he addresses slaves as moral agents. They are actually free people because they are citizens of the Kingdom. They do not have to obey their masters totally and completely in all things for they are free people and slaves of God. They must obey God over and above their masters. But when they do so, they will be punished “for doing good.”

As I noted in the children’s sermon, Peter points us to Christ as an example for how we ought to stand up under unjust suffering. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.” Instead of retaliating, Jesus “entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Peter then encourages the churches to remember that Jesus has already won their salvation. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed: (21, 23-24).

Now some Christians in the United States will say that Christians are being persecuted. They claim that they are being punished for living out their faith as they believe they are called to do. The first question we should ask, however, is if Christians are being persecuted for their distinctive actions, or if Christianity is losing its privileged position in the United States as the country becomes more diverse and as it seeks to live up to its ideals of not favoring one religion over another. Some Christians want the right to limit the services they provide from gays and lesbians, but what would they say if a Muslim owned restaurant refused to serve women who didn’t wear a hijab?

The second question we should ask is what sort of posture are Christians taking when they believe they are being wronged? Are they looking to Christ as an example? Are they following in his steps? A couple of weeks ago Peter Wehner wrote a piece in the New York Times about Christianity and humility. He writes that although humility is a chief Christian virtue,

“… humility is hardly a hallmark of American Christianity, especially (but by no means exclusively) among those Christians prominently involved in politics. There we often see arrogance, haughtiness and pride, which is not only the ‘original sin’ but also arguably the one most antithetical to a godly cast of mind.” [1]

The third question we should ask is what are the idols of our society that Christians should refuse to worship, and what are the culture norms that we should seek to subvert? Should we not seek to subvert the idea that individuals have absolute autonomy? Should we not refuse to worship and put our trust in the power of the military? Should we not live in ways that subvert our pursuit of unlimited consumption? What are the idols and cultural norms on the University that seduce us away from the worship of God and our faith in Christ?

If we live in ways that subvert the cultural norms of our day, if we refuse to worship the idols of our time, those around us will see our good deeds as evil. But that is the story that we are called to live, for it is the story of Christ Jesus. But we must remember that in following Jesus’ example, in bearing up under unjust persecution and suffering, we won’t save our society. We are not called to make all things right. Our stance in the culture will look foolish and ineffective in bringing about change, because we all know that it takes power to make change. But we are not called to bring about salvation either for ourselves or for anyone else. Rather our humble stance will point others to the suffering of Christ. For it is by his wounds that we and the whole world are healed. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Peter Whener, “The Quiet Power of Humility,” The New York Times, April 15, 2017,

April 30, 2017 Sojourners
(1 Peter 1:13-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to tell you a story about two best friends, Arnold and Paul.[1] One day Arnold and Paul were in gym class when the teacher announced that they would be learning to play basketball. The teacher chose four boys to be the captains of the teams and had the captains choose their teams. Arnold got chosen about half way through the class, but Paul was one of the last boys chosen. This made Paul feel miserable. Everyone thought he was the worst basketball player in the class.

Things didn’t get much better. Every day the teacher selected the same captains and every day Paul was the last boy chosen. Then one day the teacher chose Arnold to be a team captain. He hesitated, but then chose Paul as his first pick. Everyone in the class burst out laughing. Arnold at first thought he had made a mistake, but then he got an idea. Next, Arnold chose the second worst player in the class. And then the third and fourth worst players. Arnold chose everyone that all the other captains never wanted to choose.

So how do you think Arnold’s team did against the other team? That’s right, they lost. They were terrible. At first they got frustrated by this, but as they played together they realized that even though they were losing, at least they passed the ball to each other. They got to dribble the ball and they even got a chance to shoot the ball. When the played on the other teams no one ever passed to them and they never got to shoot the ball. So even though they were losing, they finally realized that they were having fun. They stopped caring about winning and they just had fun playing together.

Over and over again in the Bible, the people of Israel are called God’s chosen people. And in the New Testament the apostles Paul and Peter call the church God’s chosen people. But God didn’t choose Israel and God doesn’t choose the church because we are the best people in the world. In fact, God, like Arnold, chooses people others might not choose. The Apostle Paul says that God chooses the weak to shame the strong and and the foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). And God doesn’t choose the church so that the church can win. Rather, the Apostle Peter says that God chose the church to declare God’s praises. [End]

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Last week we looked at how we as Christians live in sort of a puzzling space. We just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of a new age, but yet the world goes on much as it has for thousands of years. The battle over sin and death has been won, yet sin and death remain ever prevalent. Peter begins his letter by calling the churches to live in that space with hope – sure of the inheritance and salvation that they have in Jesus Christ, yet bearing up under the persecution they are experiencing with Christ-like humility and faith.

This space we live in as Christians can be rather puzzling, or confusing, or ambiguous at times because it is a liminal space.  A liminal space is the space of a threshold. It is the space between rooms. It is the space between when one thing ends and another begins. It is sometimes a confusing space because you may not be sure which space you should be in or which way you should go. Sometimes you may feel pulled back into the one space. At others you may feel pushed into the new space.

Last week we skipped over the opening verses of Peter’s letter, but Peter recognizes this liminality right from the beginning. He writes in verse 1, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” God’s people are elect, yet they are strangers. They are chosen, yet scattered in the diaspora.

Right from the beginning Peter connects the story of the Christians in Asia Minor, or what is now Turkey, with the story of Israel. Abraham was chosen by God, promised a land but yet he wandered for most of his years throughout Canaan, and then in Egypt. Isaac and Jacob followed in his footsteps. Over the next many centuries Israel remained God’s chosen people, but yet their identity was defined as much by their time in the land of Canaan as by their time in exile in Egypt and Babylon.

If we skim through Peter’s letter, we will notice how Peter continues to make this analogy between his audience and Israel. Like Israel who hoped in the land as their inheritance, Peter put’s his congregations’ hope in “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” He then brings them with Israel into the desert in verse 7 where their troubles and trials “have come so that your faith … may be proved genuine.” Peter brings them to Mount Sinai in verse 15 where they hear God’s call to Israel, “Be holy, as I am holy.” Peter reminds his audience in verse 19 that they, like Israel, have been saved by the blood of a lamb, Jesus Christ. At Mount Sinai God commanded Israel to build a temple, a place where he would dwell with them. In chapter 2 Peter assures his audience that God is building them up to be God’s holy temple. In 2:9 Peter concludes by equating Israel’s identity and vocation with the churches’:  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

So, on the one hand, Peter assures the churches to whom he writes that they are God’s people. They are the new Israel. But they are not the Israel that lived in the Land of Canaan. They are not the Israel that enjoyed the reign of King David. They are the Israel that lives under the reign of a pagan Empire. They are Israel in Egypt. They are Israel in Babylon. They are the Israel of Jesus’ day who lived under the boot of the same Roman Empire. But yet, on the other hand, their inheritance is secure, and they already experiencing their salvation in Christ. Last week we saw that Peter calls them to live in this liminal space in hope. This week he calls them to live as strangers, as aliens, as sojourners. “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as sojourners here in reverent fear” (1:17).

So what does it mean to live as a sojourner? Before we consider what it means to live as a sojourner, we ought to examine the nature of the place in which they are called to live. What is the nature of Empire? Now not all empires are the same, but empires often have similar characteristics. Whether it be Egypt under the Pharaohs, Persia under Xerxes, Greece under Alexander, Rome under Caesar, Spain under the Hapsburgs, Britain under Queen Victoria, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Germany under Hitler, China under Mao Zedong, empires have several things in common.

Empires, first of all, believe that they are comprised of a special people. Empires see themselves as the pinnacle, the prime example of humanity. Often they believe themselves to be specially favored by the gods or by the God we Christians worship. This sense of specialness most often works itself out in some forms of privilege and discrimination. The special people or nation will define itself and its special status in terms of its race, ethnicity, religion or ideology. Rome dived the world into Roman citizens and barbarians. Islamic empires have divided the world into Muslims and infidels. Christian empires have often combined religion, ideology, culture, and race as markers of purity. Empires set their own people over and above all others.

This sense of superiority leads to the empire’s sense of calling.  As the pinnacle of humanity, they are called to lead the rest of humanity to a greater level of civilization, enlightenment, progress, or what have you. Rome graced the world with its Pax Romana. Spain was determined to evangelize the Aztecs, the Incans, and all the heathens in Central and South America. England saw its mission as bringing proper civilization to parts of Africa, India, and South East Asia.  Of course, this has often all been carried out in the name of God, for the salvation of the heathen.

The third characteristic follows from the first two. The special people with such a noble calling will be justified in using violence to carry out its mission. Of course violence has many forms. There is brute military force. But there is also economic violence, the takeover of land for the purpose of putting it to proper, civilized economic use. Empires will conscript the labor of the local population all in the name of civilizing the population and giving them proper work. There is cultural violence. Empires often try to force people to assimilate to the dominant culture. Babylon, for instance, uprooted nations and forced them to live in another place in order to uproot them from their own traditions. Empires, in short, are creative in their use and their justification of violence.

You may have noticed some similarities between my description of Empire and Peter’s encouragement to his churches. Both are a “chosen people” that have a special calling, a vocation. The content of these similar characteristics however, are vastly different, and this leads to a third important difference. Empires believe that their people are special and chosen because they are exceptional. They have been chosen because they are the greatest. Peter, however, reminds the churches in 2:18 that before they were chosen, they were “not a people.” Like Israel, God chooses his people not because they are exceptional, but because they are unexceptional. “God choose the weak … to shame the strong … the foolish … to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Second, the calling of God’s people is not to bring others to a higher level of humanity or civilization or what have you, but, as Peter says in 2:9, “to declare the praises  of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The vocation of God’s people is to bear witness to God. It is God and God alone who enlightens, redeems, and raises humanity to a higher level. The vocation of God’s people is merely to bear witness to God.

These two differences lead to the third difference which is in how God’s people live out their calling. The exceptionalism of an Empire with a special calling justifies its use of violence. God’s unexceptional people are called to bear witness to God by living in love. Peter says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” He broadens this ethic of love in 2:1: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” And verse 11, “as aliens and sojourners in the world, abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  In 3:8 he says, “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing … seek peace and pursue it.” Empires justify violence; God’s people are called to respond to violence with love.

Friends, we live in a nation that embodies the characteristics of an Empire. The one thing all politicians in America agree upon is that we are an exceptional nation. Every politician ends every political speech with, “God bless America,” and that is said as much as a prayer as a conviction. And because we Americans believe that God does bless America, we believe we have a charge, a calling to bless the rest of the world with our form of democracy and capitalism. This, in turn, leads us to spend more money on our military than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK, India, France, and Japan combined. It leads for cries to round up and deport more immigrants. It leads to promises to ban Muslims from entering the country. It leads, in short, to various and creative forms of violence.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love this country. I admire its ideals of equality, freedom and justice. But this is what it means to live as a sojourner. It means to live in a land but not to identify fully with it. God sent a letter through Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon and told them to seek the peace of the city in which they live. There is much that is commendable about the United States and other Empires. As sojourners we identify those aspects and live within them. We seek the peace and flourishing of land in which we live.

But as sojourners we are called to live in a liminal space. As sojourners we recognize that the land in which we live is neither wholly good nor wholly evil. We live in this land, but we are citizens of God’s Kingdom. As citizens of the Kingdom we live in God’s Kingdom now because we “set our hope fully on the grace to be given [us] in Jesus Christ.”  We live as “obedient children” striving to “be holy because [God is] holy.”  And so we live our lives in love, “loving one another deeply from the heart. For [we] have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of in imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

We live in a liminal space, living in the hope of the kingdom through love, but also abstaining from the evil ways of the nation in which we live. We “do not conform to the evil desires” surrounding us. We leave behind the “empty way of life handed down to us” by the culture. And we “rid ourselves of all malice and al deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” We abstain from the ways in which the nation violates the ways of God, perpetuates violence against the weak and the oppressed, and justifies its actions by claiming superiority over others. Instead of contributing to the culture of violence, we foster a culture of neighborliness for the greatest commandment is to love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself. To live as a sojourner is to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] “Loosiers,” The Wonder Years, Season 2, Episode 9, ABC, 1989.

April 16, 2017 A Hidden Life
(Colossians 3:1-4) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you all know who Wonder Woman is? How about Superman? They are superheroes, aren’t they? Do you have a favorite superhero? So if you could have any super power, what would it be? Would you like to be able to fly? Or climb up walls like Spiderman? Or maybe just be super fast, or super strong? Or maybe you might like to be able to breathe underwater. That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

This morning is Easter. And I know you can tell me what happened on Easter. Jesus rose from the dead. Have you ever wondered what that has to do with us? Sure it’s amazing that Jesus rose from the dead, but that was 2,000 years ago. What difference does that make for us?

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christians in the city of Collossae, and he said, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (3:1-3)

Did you hear anything interesting in what Paul said? He said, “you have been raised with Christ.” Now we believe that after we die and when Jesus comes back to earth again, we too will be raised from the dead. But Paul isn’t talking to a bunch of dead people. He is talking to people who are still living and he says, “you have been raised with Christ.”

You see, if we believe in Jesus, we have a superpower. If we believe in Jesus we have already been raised from the dead. We have been raised to a new way of living. Paul talks about these two ways of living. In one way of living people fight each other, they are mean to each other, they lie, and cheat and they don’t treat other people with respect. That is the dead way of living, according to Paul. But because we believe in Christ, we have been raised to the living way of living. And the living way of living is to be kind to others and generous. It is to know when to feel sorry for other people. The living way of living is to forgive those who are mean to us. It is be gentle and patient. But most of all, the living way of living is to love other people. So, if you believe in Jesus, you have been raised from the dead, like he was raised from the dead, and that means that you can start using the most powerful superpower in the world – love. [End]

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This past week the devotional book I use had me read all four accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was interesting to note the differences and even contradictions in the various accounts. There are only a few stories that are in all four gospels, but invariably they have discrepancies and frequently contradictions.

The same holds true for the stories about the resurrection of Jesus. The four accounts differ on how many women came to the tomb and the names of the women who came. In some stories they meet one angel, in others two. They differ on when they meet Jesus, and Mark ends the story before anyone actually sees Jesus.

Now some Biblical scholars will try to reconcile these accounts. They fear that these contradictory elements demonstrate that the stories are false, but I would argue the exact opposite. If Christians made up the story that Jesus rose from the dead, they would have got the story straight. Instead, what we have are stories told by different people that were handed down over a few decades before they were written down. In real life eye witness accounts of the same event have discrepancies and contradictions. The stories have a ring of authenticity because they sound like the came from different witnesses yet they all agree on the most important facts: Jesus died, was buried, some women came to the tomb early on Sunday morning, they found it empty, but then Jesus appeared to his disciples, not just once, but several times. Of course this last piece is missing from Mark, but why would anyone write the Gospel of Mark if no one ever did actually see Jesus after he rose from the dead.

And if Christians made this story up, why did they insert things that don’t make much sense or seem irrelevant to the story? Why, for instance, would someone make up the fact that the other disciple reached the tomb first but didn’t go in, and that Peter, coming second, went straight in? Why in the world would you end a story where Mark ends his story before anyone sees Jesus if you were trying to tell a lie about Jesus rising from the dead? And why does the Gospel of John include this strange encounter between Jesus and Mary in which Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus and Jesus doesn’t want Mary to hold on to him?

This encounter between Jesus and Mary not only has the mark of authenticity for its strangeness, but also demonstrates that the gospel writers were not just trying to convince people that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. They recorded these stories in order to teach the significance of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is not just a miracle; it has significance for our lives. In Matthew and Luke the focus of the resurrection stories is not so much on the resurrection itself, but on the instructions for the disciples to go to Galilee where Jesus will meet them. And in each it is in Galilee where Jesus commissions his disciples to continue his mission. The significance of the resurrection, according to Luke and Mathew, is that it vindicates Jesus’ ministry as the Messiah of the Jews and the Savior of all people and thus inaugurates the mission of the church. The same can be said for Mark.

In the Gospel of John, the significance of the resurrection is that Jesus’ followers are invited to put their faith in Jesus so that they too can have a new life. Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him because he hasn’t ascended into heaven. He cannot stay here on earth because his resurrection marks a new age, a new creation, if you will. He must ascend into heaven and take his place on the throne of God in order to begin his reign over this new age. This is what the Gospel of John calls eternal life. Eternal life is not so much a quantitative idea, as in living an infinite number of years into the future, but a qualitative idea. Eternal life is life lived to its fullest, as God meant us to live it. Eternal life is life lived in the presence of, or more so, in full communion with the God of all life.

In the rest of John Jesus appears several times to the disciples in order to invite them to turn away from death and toward eternal life. He meets the disciples in the upper room and invites them to turn from a life lived in fear of those in power to a life empowered by the Spirit and sent into world by the Father. He invites Thomas to turn from doubt to faith. And he invites Peter to turn away from a life of denial to a life of service. In overall theme, John agrees with the other gospels. The significance of the resurrection is that it becomes the basis for a life of faithful service continuing Jesus’ mission in the world.

The apostle Paul expands on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for our lives here and now. He says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)

At first glance Paul might seem to be saying that the resurrection of Jesus makes this life less relevant. Rather than thinking about this life, about “earthly things,” we should just think of the next life, “of heavenly things.” But heaven is not a future reality. It is the realm where God dwells, and so it is in that sense now and eternal. It is also the place where Jesus now sits on the throne, but that means it is the place from which he reigns over this world now. While heaven and earth are different realms, they are not completely separate. In fact, the result of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, as we read on Friday night, was that that the veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies was ripped in two. The Holy of Holies was the one particular place on earth where God’s presence dwelt. It was a piece of heaven on earth, if you will. When Jesus’s sacrifice was complete heaven, in a sense, was let loose upon the earth. God’s dwelling place began to break out of heaven and spill onto earth. When the kingdom of God is fully manifest in the age to come, as we see in the book of Revelation, God’s dwelling will be on earth. Earth will be enveloped by heaven.

So how does this help us understand Paul? What is the difference between “earthly” and “heavenly” things? The distinction between “heavenly things” and “earthly things” is not a temporal distinction, and it is now becoming less of a spatial distinction, rather there remains a moral distinction. To have our “heart set on things above” is, as Paul says in verse 5, “to put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.”  It is to rid ourselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” It is to no longer lie, but to live in the truth that all people Gentile or Jew, barbarian or Roman, slave or free, male or female, black or white, Asian or Indian, were all made to be united in Christ Jesus.

To set our hearts on heavenly things is to leave behind the earthly moral framework. In the earthly moral framework we think first of our selves. We trust in our own powers or on the powers of false gods because we must fend for ourselves in this life. And so we rely on manipulation and coercion to get our own way. In the earthly moral framework we are what we take from life and achieve in life.

But to set our hearts on heavenly things is to live within a new moral framework. It is to trust that our true and full lives are hidden with Christ. There is nothing we can suffer in this world that can separate us from our connection to the Prince of Peace and the God of Life. We are a “chosen people,” Paul says, “holy and dearly loved.” Our connection to God is based on his will and his grace. This frees us to live in this new moral framework guided by “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” It gives us the ability to truly forgive others for we have been forgiven ourselves. It gives us the greatest power in the cosmos. “Over all these virtues,” Paul says, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

The significance of Jesus’s resurrection for us here and now, according to Paul, complements the teaching of the Gospels. In the gospel stories the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are the catalyst for the mission of the disciples. It is as if Jesus spent three years training his disciples so that his mission could be multiplied by his disciples upon his resurrection and ascension. His resurrection vindicated his life. His resurrection proves that living a life in which you bring good news to the poor, heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak truth to power is the way to true and eternal life. His ascension into heaven means that this way of life now reigns over all things. Those who put their faith in Christ are now called and empowered to live in this same way. 

And so as we carry on the mission of Jesus in the world by living into the new heavenly moral framework, we bring a sense of God’s presence into the world. We ourselves become a foretaste, a sign, of what life will be like when God dwells fully on earth. If only we would live in compassion, kindness, gentleness, peace, and over all these things put on love which binds them and us in perfect unity. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


April 9, 2017 What Wondrous Love
(Matthew 26:17-30) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do any of you have grandparents? I did too when I was young, but they lived in Michigan and we lived in Ohio, so I didn’t see them much. We would see them maybe over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then in the summer again. Where do your grandparents live? Do you get to see them often? Do you ever talk to them over the phone or through Skype? We didn’t have Skype when I was young, but we talked to them on the phone once in a while.

So what do you talk about? Maybe you talk about what you are doing in school, or what activities you are doing, or your friends. Maybe you talk about what you did with them the last time they were here. Or maybe you talk about their next visit. So talking to your grandparents on the phone or through Skype sort of brings you together with them, doesn’t it? You can hear them and maybe see them, but you can’t touch them, can you? They are sort of here in one way, but not in another way.

That is sort of how it is with Jesus. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is with us in some ways, but he remains not with us in another way. You see after Jesus rose from the dead and before he ascended into heaven, he told his disciples that he would be with them always. And then at Pentecost, Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples. So when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we remember all the things Jesus did when he was here on earth, how he died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave. But we also remember his promise that he would be with us through his Sprit. And sort of like with your grandparents, we can talk with Jesus, not through a telephone, but through prayer. So Jesus is in some sense with us.

But when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we also remember that he promised to come back again and that when he does, he will gather his whole church together for one big feast. So if he promised to return it also means that he is not with us in some way too. Because we can’t touch him or see him, right? But when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we look forward to when Jesus will be totally with us. It is sort of like talking with your grandparents about when they will visit next. So next time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I want you to remember how it is sort of like talking with your grandparents on the phone. Remember that we celebrate the ways Jesus was with us, but also the ways he is with us now, and that he will be with us fully when he come again. [End]

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The anonymous hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This,” first appeared in a Methodist hymnal in 1811.  In 1840 it was set to the tune we now call “Wondrous Love.” The tune, however, was an old English ballad about an infamous 17th century pirate named Captain Kidd. The song went like this:

My name was Robert Kidd, when I sailed, when I sailed;

My name was Robert Kidd, when I sailed;

My name was Robert Kidd, God's laws I did forbid,

So wickedly I did when I sailed, when I sailed

So wickedly I did when I sailed.

The song goes on to detail some of the wicked exploits of Robert Kidd, such as shooting William Moore, one of his crew members, and how Kidd rejected his Christina faith. It is somewhat ironic that we sing a tune that recounts the life and death of a villainous pirate in order to glorify the love of Christ Jesus which he demonstrated through the cross. But Jesus’ life and death are full of irony. Things turn out in ways contrary to what we might expect.

This morning we celebrated Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem. It is a week before the Passover, one of the most important feasts for the Jews. It is a politically charged time because Passover was a politically charged feast. With the Passover the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from slavery from the Egyptians when God led them out of Egypt and to the Promised Land through Moses. The celebration also enabled the people to remember and celebrate their return to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon. The celebration was politically charged because the nation remained under the occupation of the Romans. The Passover was sort of an Independence Day celebration, but it was obvious to all that the nation was not independent. On the Passover the people’s hopes of deliverance and freedom from Rome were heightened. They not only celebrated their liberation in the past, but looked forward in hope that God would liberate them again.

Jesus takes full advantage of these hopes and dreams and orchestrates his entrance into the city accordingly. He has been gaining in popularity, drawing large crowds wherever he goes. He is known as a great and rather controversial teacher. He is known as a powerful healer. Many regard Jesus as a prophet. Many are wondering if he is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of David who will lead the people into freedom from the Romans and become their king.

Jesus orders his disciples to find a donkey and its colt. He mounts the donkey and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem in order to evoke the imagery of Zechariah, one of Israel’s prophets: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The people long for the return of their king. They hope for someone who will come and deliver them from the oppression of the Romans. They long for a Messiah who will lead them to victory on a war horse. But Jesus comes to them as the prophet foretold, humble and riding on a donkey. And he comes to bring redemption not through war, but through the end of war. The next verse in Zechariah says: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

The irony of Jesus’ life and death continue in our second gospel lesson this morning. The powers that be are plotting Jesus’ death and Judas conspires with the chief priests to find a time when they can arrest Jesus. Things seem to be spiraling out of control. It looks as though the powers that be will determine the fate of Jesus. But who is really in control here?

Just as a week before when he comes into Jerusalem, Jesus sets the scene. He sends his disciples to find a certain man and to tell him that Jesus will celebrate the Passover at his house because, Jesus says, “My appointed time is near.”

While they are eating the Passover, Jesus reveals the plot set against him. “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples are astounded. Eating with someone was a sign of intimacy and friendship. The Passover meal was also a meal one ate with one’s family, yet Jesus says, “One who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” that is, “One who is dining with me, a friend, a member of my family, will betray me.” While each of the disciples seeks assurance that it isn’t he who will betray Jesus, Jesus calls Judas out, thus forcing his hand. In 26:5 the chief priests plotted to arrest Jesus, but they wanted to wait until after the feast lest they spark a riot. But now that Jesus reveals that he is on to Judas, Judas wastes no time in bringing the temple guards to arrest Jesus later that same night.

But back at the Passover meal, Jesus indicates that the events about to transpire will not be the defeat they will appear to be, but a new exodus, a new deliverance for God’s people. As they are eating the Passover meal, as they are celebrating God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, Jesus takes some bread and says, “Take and eat; this is my body.” During the Passover meal, it was typical for the head of the household to explain some of the elements of the meal, to give a sort of mini sermon on the meaning of the different things they ate during the meal. The bread that Jesus takes is unleavened bread. When God liberated Israel from Egypt, he commanded them to prepare bread without yeast because they wouldn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise. By saying that this bread is “my body,” Jesus is indicating that he himself is going to instigate a new liberation. He will be the sustenance for God’s people in this new deliverance. To be delivered is to depend upon Jesus.

Jesus then takes a cup of wine. Traditionally there are four cups of wine served during the Passover meal which represent the ways God delivers his people. Jesus takes the cup served right after the meal and says, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He thus indicates that the deliverance he is going to bring about is not just a political deliverance, but a deeper deliverance. He will deliver God’s people from the slavery and the power of sin. In doing so, he will establish a new covenant, a new relationship between God and his people. Although Jesus will die a grueling and humiliating death on the cross, a brutal instrument of tortuous execution, it will not be a defeat, but a victory. For Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” In other words, whatever you may see in the coming days, the day of God’s kingdom is coming and Jesus will be present with all his disciples and very much alive in that kingdom.

And so when we re-enact this scene, when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we are called upon to take up the same posture and the same faith as Jesus. We are called to enter an ironic space in which we trust that things will turn out differently than the way they seem. It may seem that the powerful call the shots. It may seem that violence can only be overcome with violence. It may seem that the brokenness and wickedness present in this world are just the way things are and always will be. But we know that Jesus died, that he rose up the dead, and that he will come again.

To live in this ironic space is sort of like singing “What Wondrous Love Is This” to the tune of Robert the Kidd. The tune we sing bears witness to the sinfulness and the brokenness of this world. It reveals the truth about the way things are. It refuses to deal in “alternative facts.” It speaks truth to power. It calls out the hypocrisy of those who oppress the weak and the poor in the name of security, or prosperity, or the common good. In singing this tune we stand with those whom society has cast aside. By this tune we continue the ministry of Jesus to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to preach good news to the poor and release from captivity to all those who are in darkness.

But while we sing the tune of the reality of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, the words we sing confess a deeper reality. The words we sing proclaim that the wondrous love of God took on flesh in Jesus Christ and led him to take up a cross. The words we sing proclaim that Jesus took on the curse of sin and death for my soul and for the salvation of the world. The words we sing proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and leads us into a new exodus free from the slavery and power of sin. The words that we sing proclaim that we and all God’s people will be freed from death itself and that we will sing throughout eternity in the full and lasting presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Savior, our King. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God of all,

you gave your only-begotten Son to take the form of a servant,

and to be obedient even to death on a cross.

Give us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,

that, sharing in his humility,

we may come to be with him in his glory,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

April 2, 2017 Take off the grave clothes.
(John 11:17-45; Romans 8:6-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Suppose one day you ask your mom if she could show you how to cook a meal. She says OK and you pull up a chair to the counter. She shows you how to chop up the vegetables, while she skins and cuts up the chicken. She then gathers all the spices she needs and you watch as she cooks the chicken and then adds the vegetables and the spices. You then leave the dish to simmer for a while. You help her put the rice on the stove and then you help set the table. When the rice and chicken are done, you bring the dishes to the table and call the rest of the family. After you pray, you reach for the rice. But as you begin to scoop some onto your plate, you mom says, “Wait. What are you doing?” “I am getting some rice,” you say. “Oh, but everything looks so nice as it is,” your mom says, “Let’s not spoil it all by eating it.”

Or suppose you go to your friend’s house and you decide to play with his train set. You spend about 45 minutes connecting all the tracks in just the way you want them. You set out some buildings alongside the tracks, and you even set out some roads and you place some cars and trucks on them. When everything is all set up, you both kind of sit back to admire the little town you have created. But when you reach for one of the trains to start playing with it, your friend says, “Wait. What are you doing?”  “I am playing,” you say. “Oh let’s not play with it. If we do, it will get all messed up. It looks so nice as it is, let’s just keep it like this.”

Now that doesn’t make much sense, does it? You cook a meal in order to eat it don’t you? And you have toys so that you can play with them, right? Well why do you suppose we come to church every week to worship God? Well, we worship God because God is God. He created us and in Jesus he saves us, right?  Worshipping God is probably the most important thing we do. So why don’t we come to church every day to worship God? And why don’t we worship God all day, every day? 

Well, at the end of every worship service, I say to the congregation, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And then I say God’s blessing, “May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.” At the end of every worship service God sends us out to obey him and follow Jesus in all we do during the week. So we worship God on Sunday so that we can live for him during the week. But God doesn’t just send us out into the world alone. He blesses us. His blessing is like a promise that he will watch over us and that nothing can separate us from his love.  So as you go to Children’s worship, we are going to sing a blessing for you. (We sing “May the Peace of Christ Be with you.” # 949) [End]

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I asked this question earlier, but I will ask it again: why do we worship? What is the purpose or goal of worship? I have been encouraging you over the past weeks to engage in worship as a spiritual discipline, or, if you don’t like the word discipline, a spiritual practice. I have also said that spiritual disciplines are practices we engage in to place ourselves before the Spirit of God so that he might transform us.

Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “a process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.”[1] I would amend that by saying we that it is not just for the sake of any others, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Spiritual formation is the process whereby the Spirit of God transforms us into the image of Christ so that we participate in God’s mission to reconcile the world to himself and establish his kingdom, his reign over all creation.

The last movement in our worship service reminds us that we worship for a purpose that is outside of ourselves. We worship for the sake of others. We worship for the kingdom of God. We worship in order to be prepared to participate in God’s mission to reconcile the world. In the last movement of the worship service we are sent into the world with God’s blessing to do his bidding.

So what is God’s bidding? What does our participation in God’s mission look like? Many Christians will immediately point to Matthew 28 and the great commission – we are sent to all nations to make disciples - or to Luke 24 – we are sent to the ends of the earth to bear witness to Jesus. Of course that is part of how we participate in God’s mission, but our texts this morning paint a broader picture, a more holistic picture of our participation in God’s mission.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are perhaps reminded of where we began this series, with the confession of sin. In verse 13 we read, “if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” It is in the confession of sin that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” and in hearing the assurance of pardon that we are assured, as Paul says in verse 11, that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ form the dead will also give life to your mortal bodied because of the Spirit who lives in you.”

Earlier in verse 3 and 4 Paul argues that through this participation in Christ our sinful selves are put to death, or condemned, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” We are forgiven so that we may live lives of righteousness. But the purpose of our new life is much broader than just individual piety. In verse 15 Paul says, “The Sprit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. … Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”

Now we hear echoes of the call to worship and of our baptism. We are called by God, adopted by him to be his children. But that means we are heirs. It means we inherit something. So what do we inherit? In verse 18 we read, “I consider our present suffering not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation itself was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Our inheritance is the creation. Like the son of a wealthy landowner, we are set to inherit an estate. But we inherit the estate not so that we can just sit back and relax and enjoy our wealth. One inherits an estate in order to manage the estate. The son must manage the grape and olive production. He must oversee the shepherding of the flocks, the processing of the wool, the pressing of the olives, the making of the wine, the sale of all that is produced on the estate, and also make sure that those who work on and for the estate are properly and justly cared for. Estates in Jesus’ day were whole economies. They had numerous agricultural and industrial business all being run at once. The word “economy” comes from the Greek words oikos and nomos, house and law. An economy is the law or the ruling of a household or an estate.

But our estate, the estate we are to inherit as children of God, is the creation itself. The glory that will be revealed in us is the glory of the creation itself as we take up our original calling as stewards of the creation and begin caring for and ruling over the creation as we were supposed to do. This is how the creation will be brought into the “freedom and glory of the children of God.”

That means that your participation in the mission of God to reconcile the world to himself and to bring in his kingdom can be found not just in being an evangelist, but also in being a scientist – someone who increases our human knowledge of how the physical world works so that we can establish dominion over the creation and so that we know better how to care for the creation and for society.  It can be found in being an artist or a musician – someone who creates and adds beauty to our lives or speaks through art as a prophet challenging and moving us towards a more just society. It can be found in being a nurse or a doctor or any of the healing professions. It can be found in the humanities as those who examine human history and human thought, helping us understand ourselves and our societies, so that we can be and act more justly. And, of course, it can be found in the act of production whether that be in the production of food or of consumer goods or the production of entertainment, producing things that are necessary and good for human life and all of life in creation to flourish. Our participation in the mission of God is to encourage the flourishing of life.

Jesus came to fulfill that mission for us and to lead us in that same mission. In John 10:10, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd caring for his sheep and says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” In chapter 11 he hears that his good friend, Lazarus is ill and he knows that Lazarus will die. Once Lazarus dies, Jesus makes his way to Bethany. Martha confronts Jesus saying, “if you had been here my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus came to give life now, not just in the age to come.

Jesus therefore goes to the tomb in which Lazarus was laid four days earlier. He orders that the stone be moved away from the entrance and he calls out, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus comes out wrapped in strips of linen as was the burial custom of the day. “Take off the grave clothes,” Jesus says, “and let him go.”

Jesus could have had Lazarus keep the grave clothes on as a reminder and proof of his miracle. What a witness for evangelism that would have been. But if we are to bare witness to Jesus and tell people the good news, the good news is that Jesus came so that all may have life and have it to the full both for now and eternity. Just so we read in verse 45, “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Martha, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” And so the purpose of the Christian life is not just to be saved for a future life in heaven. The purpose of the Christian life is to live in and before the presence of God, a life that begins here and now and continues on into the next life.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is Lord of this life and the age to come. The resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection vindicate and affirm the value of the life we are living here and now.

Jesus orders that they take off the grave clothes that cling to Lazarus’ body. He orders that they strip off the reminders of the grave and the remnants of death so that Lazarus can live this life fully once again.

I think the imagery here invites us to ask, what are our grave clothes? Take one of the strips of cloth that are being passed around in the baskets and ask yourself, “What are the things that cling to you or that you cling to that prevent you from living fully?” What prevents you from living as a faithful steward of the creation as we were called to live? What keeps you from living justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God? What keeps you from living your life for the sake of the Kingdom of God? Is there some sin that keeps clinging to you? Are you filled with pride, or anger, or resentment, or jealousy? Are you captivated by a false desire? Do you put your hope in the things of this world – money, power, “success” – rather than the creator of the world? Are you held back by a truncated gospel that denies the goodness of this life and teaches that our goal is to escape this life? Do you divide your life between a private, religious life in which you are guided by God’s ways, and a public life in which you live by the ways of the secular Academy? Do you suffer from some addiction that captivates you and controls you?  Are you imprisoned by some fear – fear of what some political leader may do, fear of global warming, fear of those who are different from you?  What is it that prevents you from living life to the full and so being a true witness of Jesus Christ?

Hear the call of Jesus, “Take off the grave clothes. I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Turn to 904 (1-2,4-5). As we sing “Lord, make us servants,” take off your grave clothes and cast them in the baskets. But first let us begin with a silent prayer asking God to enable you to cast aside your grave clothes.

[1] M. Robert Mulholland Jr and Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, Revised and Expanded edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 19.